Mother Jones Magazine

For Queer Parents Like Us, the Demise of Roe Feels All Too Familiar

This week, as my youngest child prepares to graduate from high school under the looming shadow of the end of Roe v. Wade, I find myself remembering a moment soon after the birth of his older brother. Our overly sleepy newborn needed a blood test. Stitched and battered, I shuffled into the office of a hospital administrator who called me only Mom and rattled off the perfunctory questions—Name? Social? Medical record number?—except, for the first time, the questions weren’t about me but about my son. It was the first time, too, for a particular hitch of unrecognition: “Mother’s name?” she asked without looking up. “Father’s name?”

“Mothers,” I corrected her. “He has two mothers.”

The birth of a first child transforms a couple into a family; the arrival of our son was also a moment in the birth of a movement, one that in a relatively short time has transformed the world from a closed place to a more open one. This is what we want for our children—to see the world grow with them. But with the death of Roe, I wonder if the opening that has defined our parenthood will snap closed again. I wonder what else we have that will get taken away.  

Back in that hospital administrator’s office, my own mother was sitting beside me. She and my father had come to the Bay Area for the birth of their first grandchild, who was like the trump card we’d played on all of their disappointment that I was gay. They could meet the news of my engagement with Do you really want to do this? They could stagger through the wedding like zombies. But the first grandchild? They couldn’t say meh to a baby. And they didn’t—they were smitten. A baby didn’t magically fix my relationship with my parents, but it did fix something. Later that night, after the visit to the hospital, my mother gushed: “You’re so brave!”

I didn’t feel brave. I felt like I was just living the life I meant to live. I’d spent my 20s chanting We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it! Boomer lesbians had babies together before we did. This wasn’t new. And yet, in the history of the world being written and erased under our feet: so fragile, so new.

Gay and lesbian families with children are certainly new to the law, and our family’s history records the evolution of that legal status in strata whose clay is still damp to the touch. My wife and I first married in 1999, in a big, beautiful ceremony in the Berkeley Hills with a rabbi, a klezmer trio and a DJ. We smashed a glass and ate passion fruit mousse cake covered with gardenias. The one thing our wedding did not have: recognition from the state.

Our children were born into a legally liminal relationship, and extraordinary remedies were required to ensure that they would be recognized.

Our children were born into this legally liminal relationship, and extraordinary legal remedies were required to ensure that they would be recognized as fully and completely ours. When our oldest son was born at the turn of the millennium, the state did not recognize my spouse as his legal parent on his birth certificate. There was a workaround that allowed her to adopt him, but it was just that—a workaround.

At that time, the only biological mothers entering into adoption agreements were women who had chosen to give up their babies. When I sat down in the little downtown Oakland house that had been converted into our lawyer’s office, that is the paperwork she handed me: the forms a mother would sign when she was legally relinquishing her child. Flooded with all the juicy hormones of weepiness and attachment, I read the relevant paragraph twice and then a third time. There was no asterisk, saying, No, not really. I just met this boy and I am never giving him up. Was I actually going to sign this thing? I was terrified.

Our lawyer leveled her gaze at me across the wood-paneled room that looked like my father’s den: “Sign it.” That first adoption required multiple social worker visits to our home—a home in which two committed partners had planned and conceived the child—and culminated in an audience with a judge.

Our second son was born three years later, in 2004. The State of California by then allowed same-sex parents to adopt their partner’s biological children through what’s known as a second-parent adoption, a slightly less onerous process that was designed for step-parents, and still included lawyers and legal fees, social workers and judges, but at least it omitted the breathtaking declaration of surrender.

It wasn’t until 2008 that my spouse and I were able to go down to the county courthouse to hear the words guaranteed to raise goosebumps for any queer couple of that era: “with the power invested in me by the State of California.” Our school-aged children were there with their pals, each little fist clutching a single Gerbera daisy. We got to the courthouse just in time. That November’s election gave us our first Black president, but also a ballot measure called Proposition 8—a state constitutional amendment that took away the right of couples like us to marry in our home state.

The California ban remained in place almost five years before a 2013 US Supreme Court decision rendered it unconstitutional. But true security for our marriage and for our family as a legal entity didn’t come until 2015, when the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges made marriage equality the law of the land.

People who aren’t gay—and even some who are—sometimes don’t believe me when I remind them that we’ve only had the right to marry for a handful of years. The decision was recent enough that, when our younger son needed to provide proof of residency to play on his regional Little League All Stars team, the certifying umpires refused to accept a water bill in my spouse’s name and an electrical bill in mine and a mortgage in both as proof of residence. “Sorry,” the coach emailed early on a Saturday morning. “They need proof that you’re a family.” How many heterosexual families, I wondered, had to submit a marriage certificate to send their sons out to the infield?

In the seven years since Obergefell, though, we’ve seen how relieved fellow parents, neighbors and strangers have been to give up the assumption of heterosexuality. “What does your partner do?” they ask now, instead of your husband. Most people we encounter seem happy to find themselves in this new world that acknowledges humanity’s various realities. They want to be in on what in another era might have been a secret.

It’s a strange moment to be a queer family whose young men have come of age only to see some of their own freedoms revoked.

And in these past seven years, teens in our sons’ circle have been proudly identifying as queer and non-binary in numbers and ways that were unthinkable when I was in high school. This is progress. This is what we want for our children.

It’s so tempting to believe, as Martin Luther King Jr. preached, that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But with the recent legal assaults on gay and trans children in Florida, Alabama, and elsewhere; the banning (and perhaps burning) of books; and the likely reversal of a cornerstone Supreme Court decision that has shaped women’s access to health care and opportunity for most of my time on this planet, it seems that, with enough brute force, the arc can also be bent in the opposite direction.

It’s a strange moment to be a queer family whose young men have come of age only to see some of their own freedoms revoked. Reproductive freedom, after all, shapes the lives of men and women alike. It seems possible, too, that my children, who professed boredom, ate cupcakes and sailed paper boats at the Oakland Rose Garden after they watched their parents get legally married, may also watch that right get taken away. Samuel Alito, the justice who authored that draft Roe-abolishing opinion, was likewise among the court’s Obergefell dissenters. (Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia penned their own opposing opinions.) 

I worry for my sons and their peers; I worry that these young people who have grown up facing the specter of environmental devastation will see their own rights stripped from them one by one and just give up. Too long a sacrifice, Yeats wrote, can make a stone of the heart. I’ve seen signs of this nihilism, which can seem the only antidote to anxiety and despair. It’s not what I want for my children.

This week, as my son walks across the stage and flings his cap into the air in that ceremony that marks an end of childhood yet is paradoxically called a commencement, I will do my best to remember that what seems like an endpoint is only ever a point along the way. What matters is that you don’t give up, I want to tell my sons and their friends, remembering those defiant marches of my 20s, voices raised, fists waving, remembering the aisles of Target now stocked in June with rainbow flags. No matter what, you keep going.

Russia’s War Created a Global Hunger Disaster. Climate Change Is Ramping It Up.

Back in February, Russia invaded Ukraine, turning Europe’s main wheat-growing region—a key source of grain and cooking oil for the Middle East and Africa—into a war zone. Global food prices had already been rising steadily for a year, pushed up by supply chain snarls brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The war sent them soaring anew, to the highest levels since 1961, when the United Nations began tracking. On top of this, global public-health authorities warn that weather extremes related to climate change are wilting crops and shrinking harvests in alarming ways—setting the stage for what could be the worst hunger crisis in generations. 

At a meeting of the United Nations on May 18, Secretary-General António Guterres reported that the number of “severely food insecure people” had doubled in just two years, from 135 million before the pandemic to 276 million today, “with more than half a million experiencing famine conditions—an increase of more than 500 per cent since 2016.” At the same meeting, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, added that without an immediate reduction in the price of food and other necessities like energy, which is also soaring, the number of people experiencing famine could soon balloon to 49 million in 43 countries, a scale of misery not seen since China’s Great Leap Forward Famine of 1949-’51. 

The number of people experiencing famine could soon balloon to 49 million in 43 countries.

The case of India, the world’s second-biggest producer of wheat, exemplifies how climate contributes to this mess. Typically, the great bulk of India’s harvest feeds domestic demand, leaving little left over for exports. But five consecutive bumper crops emboldened Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare in April that his country’s wheat farmers could help offset the Black Sea shortfall, because “we already have enough food for our people.” In early May, he reiterated his vow, adding that “India’s farmers are coming forward to feed the world.” The announcements briefly helped calm markets and stabilize prices.

But even as Modi was talking up the nation’s wheat output, a historic heatwave had descended upon the subcontinent’s breadbasket region. “March’s temperatures were consistently 3–8 ºC above average, reaching highs of 44 ºC [111 ºF]— the highest they’ve been since records began 122 years ago,” Nature reports. The unrelenting heat parched crops and forced the government to slash its harvest forecast. Modi had to backtrack. Rather than “feed the world” with bounty, India would ban exports, the right-wing PM announced on May 16. In response, global wheat prices spiked yet again.

Meanwhile, in the United States—a key hub of production in the global food system of such staple commodities as wheat, rice, and corn—droughts supercharged by climate change are also wreaking havoc on harvests, threatening to add yet more fuel to the fire. 

Much of the Great Plains, the nation’s most important wheat growing region, stretching from Nebraska to the Texas Panhandle, is currently beset by weather extremes. In the southern part, farmers plant wheat in the winter and harvest it early in the the summer. This year, a drought with conditions ranging from “severe” to “exceptional” has settled in, according to the US Drought Monitor. In Oklahoma, the combination of high heat and bone-dry soil has “devastated” the winter wheat crop, the Oklahoma State University Extension reported on May 23, and overall output will be half of last year. In the Texas Panhandle’s farm fields, an astonishing 79 percent of the winter wheat crop is in “poor” or “very poor” condition ahead of harvest, the US Department of Agriculture’s latest assessment, released May 23, finds. It’s not hard to see why: Virtually 100 percent of the region’s farmland acres adequate soil moisture, the report states. The dismal conditions will drag down the overall US winter wheat output by 8 percent this year, the USDA projects—right when the world needs more grain to hit the market

In the northern plains, where farmers plant wheat in the spring and harvest it in the late summer, output won’t likely offset the south’s shortfall. There, the opposite problem has descended: Spring storms have made fields too wet plant. (Climate change has already dramatically increased spring precipitation in the region, and will continue doing so going forward, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a multi-agency government report released in 2017). As a result of soggy fields, “US farmers have only seeded 49 percent of their intended spring wheat acres as of May 22, matching 2014 for the slowest pace since 1996, ” Reuters reported on Tuesday. The major buyers of US wheat include the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria, and Yemen. 

Meanwhile, in California’s Central Valley, a third consecutive year of epic drought has settled in. While the region is most famous for luxury crops (almonds, pistachio, walnuts, wine grapes) that don’t contribute much to the low-income countries now mired in hunger crises, it’s northern half, known as the Sacramento Valley, is a major producer of short-grain rice, about 44 percent of which is typically exported. This year, farmers in the region will receive a fraction of the irrigation water they usually get through canals designed to capture snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

As a result, farmers there are fallowing huge swaths of land. In a normal year, they devote about 500,000 acres to rice. Last year, already squeezed by dry conditions, land planted to rice dropped to 407,000 acres; and this year, the USDA projects acreage at 340,000 acres—about 32 percent below normal and the lowest level in 39 years. Mainly because of the California shortfall, the agency expects overall US rice exports in 2022 to fall 4 percent compared to last year’s level.

In short, California’s latest drought is zapping rice that could have gone to ease a mounting global food crunch. Unlike wheat, which is directly affected by the war, rice isn’t trading at all-time highs on global markets. But its price has surged lately, and it is trading at its highest level in a decade. “Rice is the primary staple for more than half the world’s population, with Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America the largest consuming regions,” the USDA states. In 2008, simultaneous spikes in wheat and rice prices triggered food riots “from Haiti to Bangladesh to Egypt,” CNN reported at the time. 

“If we do not feed people, we feed conflict.”

The modern global food system may be reaching its limits. Bolstered by hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and ever-huger diesel-powered machines, farms have gotten dramatically more productive. Between 1960 and 2010, worldwide agricultural output more than tripled, far outstripping population growth. But that ramp-up has led to geographic and economic concentration: food production consolidated into a few big exporting countries like the United States, Brazil and Russia, and traded by a handful of globe-spanning firms known as the ABCDs—Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus—which are currently raking in “tremendous profits” from high prices, reports the financial-analysis firm S&P Global. 

Such a system may be efficient at maximizing crop yields (and profits for the ABCDs) under ideal weather conditions, but it’s also vulnerable to shocks from an ever-warmer climate and from wars like the one raging in Ukraine. In its most recent report, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that warmer temperatures have already lowered yields of the globe’s big three staple crops—corn, wheat, and rice—by 5.3 percent since 1961, and that these crops’ yields will fall an additional 10-25 percent for each degree Celsius of future warming. Climate and geopolitical insults to the global food system have a way of intersecting and feeding into each other in hellish ways. As the UN’s Guterres recently put it, “If we do not feed people, we feed conflict.” And of course, conflict makes feeding people all the more difficult.  

For decades, agencies like the International Monetary Fund have urged low-income countries to push small-scale farmers out of agriculture and into cities, while relying on global markets for food staples. The IPCC report suggests a different way forward: diversify the global food system by supporting those same farmers to grow food for local consumption, using “agroecological” methods that don’t rely heavily on pricey inputs like synthetic fertilizer (which has also skyrocketed in price since the war began). Think growing multiple crops in rotation; and combining crops with livestock and trees. As the threat of famine gains momentum and the climate warms, those ideas resonate. 

Kansas City Police Shot a Black Woman Who Said She Was Pregnant and Had Her Hands in the Air

On Friday, police officers in Kansas City, Missouri, repeatedly shot a woman in a store parking lot even after she told them she couldn’t get on the ground because she was pregnant. A witness who spoke with the Kansas City Star said the woman, 26-year-old Leonna Hale, had her hands up moments before the officers fired their weapons.

Hale had been sitting in a car outside a Family Dollar store when officers ordered her to get out, according to the witness, a mother named Shé Danja who had gone to the store with her children to get gas and ice cream. The officers suspected that Hale and a man inside the vehicle might have been involved in a carjacking in a neighboring city, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

The man exited the vehicle, jumped a fence, and ran as officers chased him, according to Shé Danja. She watched Hale, who is Black, step out of the car with her hands raised in the air. When officers ordered Hale to get on the ground, Hale told them she couldn’t because she was pregnant, according to Shé Danja. Hale added that there was a gun in the car, and began inching backward as officers approached her with their weapons drawn. She then ran three steps away from the officers, who responded by shooting her five times, according to Shé Danja. (Sgt. Andrew Bell of the Highway Patrol told me that an autopsy would need to be conducted to determine how many times Hale was shot.) Hale seemed “scared at them all coming towards her with guns in her face,” Shé Danja later wrote on Facebook.

It’s unclear whether Hale was armed. The Highway Patrol’s Bell told local reporters on Friday that a “suspect” handgun was discovered in the parking lot after the shooting, but he did not specify then whether Hale herself had a weapon. Bell told me on Tuesday that Hale did have a gun in her hand when she was shot. “We know for a fact that she was armed,” he said.

It’s worth adding that there have been many incidents around the country of the police lying or providing misleading information to the public after they shoot or injure people, though it’s not clear they did so in Hale’s case. (Not too long ago, a prosecutor accused Kansas City cops of falsely claiming that Cameron Lamb, a 26-year-old Black man, was armed when they fatally shot him in 2019.) The witness, Shé Danja, said Hale was not holding a gun. “She did not pull out a weapon on them,” Shé Danja told the Star. “She did not even have a stick in her hand.” 

Video footage filmed by Shé Danja appears to show Hale lying on the ground after the shooting with blood on her shirt as an officer handcuffed her. When Shé Danja repeatedly asked the officers why they fired their weapons, they did not answer. More than a few minutes went by before Hale was offered any assistance, Shé Danja said. The Highway Patrol’s Bell could not confirm or deny that allegation, but said the agency would know more after evaluating body camera footage. “We will have a lot more detail in the coming days, weeks,” he said, adding that footage of police shootings aren’t normally released to the public during an investigation, but that the prosecutor’s office could release it later.

Hale went to the hospital with serious injuries but was in stable condition as of Friday night, according to Bell. According to the Kansas City Defender, she has a broken arm, a collapsed lung, and bullets lodged in her body. Bell cast doubt on whether Hale was pregnant but said the agency had not been able to verify one way or the other because of privacy laws that prevent the hospital from releasing information about her health. “There is a rumor she’s pregnant. We understand that,” Bell told me. “We believe she’s not pregnant.”

State troopers are now investigating what happened to Hale, and two of the officers involved in the incident have been placed on administrative leave. It is unclear whether Hale and the man who was with her are still suspected of involvement in a crime. As of Tuesday, Bell said he did not believe anybody was in police custody for the alleged carjacking.

The witness, Shé Danja, wrote on Facebook that the incident had traumatized her and her young children, who also watched it. “I’m literally in shock,” she wrote in a post sharing her video footage. (She later deleted the post because it was disturbing her.) “Keep in mind,” she added, that “they chased her BF who jumped out of the vehicle and he was captured unharmed…while she was left there in the street literally still near the vehicle she got out of.” Shé Danja was dismayed at how the officers handcuffed Hale after shooting her: “I’m a whole medical assistant and it’s literally not how you handle a gunshot victim who’s pregnant.”

The case has sparked outrage among activists around the country who say there was no good reason for the police to fire their weapons at Hale. “She had her hands up and told police she could not follow their directions to get on her stomach b/c she was pregnant. There is no reforming this,” tweeted activist Leslie Mac of the Frontline, a campaign of the Working Families Party, the Movement for Black Lives, and other racial justice advocacy groups. “If mass murderers of Black people can be apprehended alive,” tweeted Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum think tank, “why must Black people in traffic stops constantly fear for their lives?” 

Trump’s “Russia Hoax” Narrative Just Took a Big Blow

The Trump-Russia scandal feels like ancient history. But the truth still matters. And the narrative of what occurred remains fiercely contested, as advocates of the former president press the false claim that the entire scandal was a hoax fabricated by his foes. 

A jury’s acquittal Tuesday of former Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann, after just six hours of deliberation, on a charge he lied to the FBI in 2016 when he shared a tip about potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, was an embarrassing defeat for the three-year-plus investigation of special counsel John Durham. But it was also a blow against the attempt to rewrite history to vindicate the wild lies of a man who hopes to be elected president again. 

Durham was first appointed by Attorney General William Barr in May 2019, just after Barr used lies to bury special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Durham’s charge was to investigate the origins of DOJ’s Russia investigation and determine if related intelligence collection was “lawful and appropriate.” (Barr gave Durham special counsel status in October 2020.) Durham has not identified any wrongdoing on that front. But by prosecuting Sussmann, his team cast a spotlight on the Clinton campaign ties to researchers who unearthed allegations about Trump, and seemed to deliberately release cherry-picked information intended to work up Trump backers.

The context is important here. By the time of Sussmann’s September 19, 2016, meeting with FBI General Counsel James Baker, allegations surrounding Trump and Russia were already a big deal. After Trump urged Russians to target Clinton’s emails, a group of cybersecurity researchers began looking into server data for possible covert communications between the Trump Organization and the Kremlin-connected Alfa Bank. Those researchers contacted Sussmann, who represented both the Clinton campaign and a tech executive involved in the organizing the research. 

Sussmann helped the Clinton campaign try to get media coverage of the data. He also shared the data with the FBI. Durham’s entire case against Sussmann was based on an allegation that Sussmann lied in that meeting by stating that he was not representing a client: Clinton. Durham alleged that Sussmann wanted to prompt an FBI investigation into the server matter to make it more likely the press would report on it. The jury clearly didn’t buy this. Prosecutors failed to show anyone in Clinton’s camp directed Sussmann to contact the FBI. Nor was it clear Sussmann billed Clinton for the meeting. The case against Sussmann, as critics noted when he was charged, and a jury just confirmed, was strikingly weak. 

So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sussmann’s case is a real example of what Trump and his cronies claimed the Mueller investigation was: a political prosecution.

Durham’s conduct since charging Sussmann has furthered this impression. In court filing in February, Durham indicated that the cyber researchers had also improperly shared data of Russian-made phones being used near the Trump White House in a spurious attempt to smear his administration. Trump and right wing press then declared, falsely, that this meant the Clinton campaign had paid researchers to spy on the Trump White House. (Actually, the cell phone data was gathered when Barack Obama was still president.) The judge in the case faulted Durham’s prosecutors, calling the cellphone data an unnecessary “sideshow,” prompting Durham to disavow the “spying” charges his motion had sparked.

A bigger problem with Durham’s case is that the Alfa Bank server issue had no evident effect on the Russia investigation. The FBI, we know now, was already investigating Trump’s ties to Russia when Sussmann met with Baker. So the server connections didn’t cause the investigation. They in fact seem not to have factored into it at all. Special Counsel Robert Mueller never mentioned the server links. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s lengthy 2020 report devoted just a few paragraphs to the issue, and dismissed it: “The Committee did not find that the DNS activity reflected the existence of substantive or covert communications between Alfa Bank and Trump Organization personnel.” Even if Sussmann had been guilty of the charges against him, his tip had no impact.

All the exertions of Durham and Trump backers to suggest malfeasance in the origin of the Trump Russia investigation cannot alter what was found: Trump knowingly benefited from Russian efforts to interfere in US politics on his behalf. He lied extensively about his campaign’s ties to Russia, about the business interest he had in Russia, even as he publicly sucked up to Vladimir Putin. He obstructed justice to cover up his actions. 

It’s true that suspicions of a more organized conspiracy, despite some unresolved evidence, have not been borne out. And early speculation that drew wide attention, including the server story, have gone unsubstantiated. Some claims were overhyped. But Donald Trump and his enablers are running a campaign to use this lack of a resolution, this muddle, and the human dislike of nuance, to declare he did nothing wrong at all when it comes to Russia.  He will probably repeat this on the campaign trail. It is a lie, a false narrative. It took a hit Tuesday.

After Texas Massacre, Politicians Move to Introduce Gun Control Legislation…in Canada

After the horrific murder of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, politicians moved quickly, even in the face of backlash, to pass legislation to buy back assault weapons and limit the sale and transfer of handguns. 

It’s just that those politicians are Canadian.

Citing worsening homicide rates and the cautionary tale “south of the border,” the Canadian government yesterday introduced a massive bill designed to reduce the presence of deadly weapons.

Yesterday’s legislation would freeze the sale of handguns, initiate a mandatory buyback of most military-style assault rifles, and implement so-called “red flag” laws that allow judges to temporarily confiscate weapons from people viewed to be suicidal or dangerous to others. The bill, which will likely garner the support of both the Canadian Liberal and New Democratic Parties, is all but guaranteed to pass despite objections from conservatives. 

The government also announced that it will require all rifle magazines to be altered to fit a maximum of five rounds and that it will ban the sale of large-capacity magazines.

“As a government, as a society, we have a responsibility to act to prevent more tragedies,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said yesterday. “We need only look south of the border to know that if we do not take action, firmly and rapidly, it gets worse and worse and more difficult to counter,” he added. 

Canada has far fewer mass shootings than the United States and fewer guns per capita, but the rate of firearm-related homicides—most involving handguns—rose between 2013 and 2020.

Canada’s latest move to cap the number of deadly weapons in the country may demonstrate that the fear of a uniquely American epidemic of mass shootings has spread beyond the nation’s borders. In 2020, Trudeau’s government banned the sale of 1,500 gun models after a frenzied shooter claimed 22 lives in Nova Scotia. According to the Washington Post, the Nova Scotia killer acquired his weapons in the United States and smuggled them over the border. 

The development, however, also underscored just how sclerotic the US government has become, with little obvious movement on the gun issue even after another deadly shooting.

The War in Ukraine May Bring More Pollution to US Communities

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

For the past year, Roishetta Ozane has been trying to stop new liquified natural gas, or LNG, export terminals from being built in southwest Louisiana. “We are already inundated with LNG and oil and gas,” said the clean energy organizing director with Healthy Gulf, who lives in the town of Sulphur. “We’re surrounded by it.”

Ozane, who lost her home to back-to-back hurricanes in 2020, was already fighting the growing number of terminals, where companies supercool and condense natural gas to load it onto specially-built tanker ships. Now, the ripple effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine are making her work even more urgent.

Ozane and other climate and environmental justice advocates fear that the industry is using the war to lock in long-term sales contracts and financing for a flood of new export terminals. They say this would do little to alleviate the current energy crisis, but could push climate targets out of reach and threaten nearby communities at every step of the supply chain—from fracked wells, to pipeline compressor stations, to massive LNG export terminals. While some Americans are hurting due to high gas prices and inflation, frontline communities could end up paying with their health and lives.

“If we bring in all these LNG facilities…we’ll have to deal with them for 30 years. That’s why we’re fighting this.”

“If we bring in all these LNG facilities, they’re not going to start operating for a few years. But then, when they start, we’ll have to deal with them for 30 years,” Ozane said. “That’s why we’re fighting this.”

In response to the war in Ukraine, last week the European Union announced an ambitious plan to slash its use of Russian natural gas by two-thirds by the end of the year. Some of the gap in supply will be addressed by reducing demand and accelerating clean energy projects, but Europe is counting on LNG from the US to replace a large portion of the Russian gas.

US producers were already ramping up sales to the EU, even before Russia’s invasion began. In December, at least two ships carrying US LNG diverted mid-transit to deliver gas to Europe, instead of their original destinations in Asia, to take advantage of record-high prices. In mid-March, the Department of Energy allowed two LNG terminals in Louisiana and Texas to boost exports, meaning every export terminal in the US is now operating at maximum capacity.

Still, a chorus of voices from the oil and gas industry has been demanding that the Biden Administration remove restrictions on oil and gas development, including new LNG infrastructure. In a statement, Mike Sommers, the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, called on the administration to pursue “meaningful policy actions to support global energy security, including further addressing the backlog of LNG permits, reforming the permitting process, and advancing more natural gas pipeline infrastructure.”

The problem with these talking points is that the federal government is not holding back LNG development. The US has eight existing LNG export terminals. An additional four are under construction, and the federal government has issued permits for 12 more, according to data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Integrity Project’s Oil & Gas Watch.

Those 12 aren’t moving ahead yet, but it’s not because of anything that the Biden Administration is doing. “It has been investors that have been standing by the sidelines,” Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said during a recent panel discussion. LNG export terminals are multi-decade investments, and in recent years, it hasn’t been clear to investors that there would be enough long-term demand to justify funding new terminals.

But now, things are shifting. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the price of natural gas has become more volatile, and buyers want to sign long-term contracts to secure more stable prices. Before, the financial outlook for LNG export terminals seemed uncertain. Now, “we are starting to see that certainty flow in,” Williams-Derry said.

It’s possible that the long-term contracts will give investors the confidence to back the pending facilities, and that more will be built. Williams-Derry also expects US gas production to continue to increase, but not so quickly that it tanks prices.

“This is just locking me, my family, my community into more dirty energy, instead of a cleaner alternative.”

Meanwhile, communities at every stage of the US supply chain are worried about what this means for their lives and their health. Lois Bower-Bjornson, her husband, and their four children live in Washington County, Pennsylvania—by far the most heavily fracked county in the state. “This is just locking me, my family, my community into more dirty energy, instead of a cleaner alternative,” said Bower-Bjornson, who serves as a field organizer for the Clean Air Council.

Bower-Bjornson’s home is within 5 miles of more than 20 active fracking wells. In 2019, she and her family participated in a study that found high levels of numerous hazardous chemicals associated with fracking in their bodies.

“It’s frightening,” said Bower-Bjornson. “It just becomes something that you live with, but, you know, it’s always on your mind.”

Beth Weinberger, director of research and policy at the Environmental Health Project, has been tracking the public health effects of fracking in Pennsylvania since 2012. She notes that numerous health studies have linked proximity to fracking operations with an increased risk of asthma, skin disorders, cardiac problems, preterm births, low birth weight, and childhood leukemia. If gas production continues to rise, “it just means more of the same,” said Weinberger.

At the opposite end of the pipeline, if the gas industry succeeds in building more LNG export terminals, that means more of the same for Ozane and her community, too.

Ozane and her six children lived in Lake Charles, Louisiana, before Hurricanes Laura and Delta destroyed their home two years ago. Since then, they’ve been living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, in the next town over. Every morning when Ozane steps out her front door, she sees a skyline filled with petrochemical plants, smokestacks, and flares. “Some days it smells like eggs. Some days it smells like a really strong smell of Clorox or chlorine. Some days there’s this chemical smell that you really can’t put your finger on,” she said.

Already, LNG export terminals are adding to that pollution burden. About 10 miles down the road from where Ozane lives, the Cameron LNG terminal releases sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, fine particulate matter, and carbon monoxide. Further south, Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass LNG terminal began operating in January. Since then, “it has flared nearly continuously, sometimes with a 300-foot flame with black smoke at the end of it,” said James Hiatt, a former oil and gas worker who now serves as a coordinator for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “It really makes you think, how could this be clean energy in any sense of the word?” he said.

“We see the flare, we see the smoke, we see the steam, and we know that we’re inhaling whatever they’re releasing.”

The flaring makes Ozane uneasy. “The plants will say, if you see a flare, that means you’re safe, because if the flare is going, that means the systems in place are working. But yet, we see the flare, we see the smoke, we see the steam, and we know that we’re inhaling whatever they’re releasing,” she said. On top of that, “each individual plant is talking about their individual emissions, but what happens when you put all of those emissions together? What are we breathing in?” she asked.

Southwest Louisiana was already the epicenter of the LNG export boom, and now companies are proposing even more terminals there. For Hiatt, that raises serious questions about safety. Lining the coast with LNG infrastructure degrades wetlands—a natural buffer against storm surge from the hurricanes that regularly slam the coast—making nearby homes more susceptible to flooding.

And then there’s the risk of explosions. “To put massive amounts of natural gas in these huge storage tanks and think that you can out-engineer Mother Nature in a way that’s not going to cause some catastrophic fire or explosion over the course of the next 30 years? How many storms can these things withhold?” Hiatt asked. In 2018, the Sabine Pass LNG export facility in Cameron Parish had to shut down two LNG storage tanks after workers discovered gas was leaking from numerous cracks. It was a near-miss that could have resulted in an enormous explosion.

Ozane and Hiatt are both worried about what’s happening in Ukraine, and about the looming gas shortage this winter. But like Bower-Bjornson, they don’t think that locking their community into decades worth of more pollution from the oil and gas industry is the right answer. Even if the proposed terminals are able to secure funding, it typically takes around three years for them to come online. Rather than doubling down on fossil fuels, they hope Europe will rapidly reduce demand and switch to clean energy sources. “We cannot put their fight on our backs by making ourselves a living sacrifice,” Ozane said.

Opposing anything that the oil and gas industry wants to do in southwest Louisiana is an uphill battle. People like Ozane and Hiatt have been working to educate their neighbors on the industry’s expansion plans and the harms they would bring. They’ve been asking regular people to speak up at meetings and write public comments to prevent the permitting of even more export terminals. They’re also advocating for policy changes at the state and federal level.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought that this was locked in and we were screwed,” said Hiatt. “We’re not there yet. I mean, we’re at the threshold,” he continued. To him, when it comes to both preventing new LNG terminals from being built and taking action on climate change, “our actions and our inactions today matter in a way that maybe they haven’t mattered as much previously,” he said. He understands that people need jobs, but hopes the region can switch to a more sustainable industry, like offshore wind. “We’ve got to do something different,” he said.

The way Ozane sees it, southwest Louisiana is facing two existential crises right now: pollution from the oil and gas industry and climate change. Every morning when she wakes up, she asks herself: “Am I doing enough to save this place for my children?”

“They have every right to drink the water, to fish in the lakes, to go to the beach and enjoy the sands, to go shrimping, to enjoy the festivals and the music and the culture,” she said. “I’m going to do everything that I can to protect it for them.”

Weaning Ourselves off Fossil Fuels Is Going to Hurt

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

Individuals in rich countries face huge financial losses if climate action slashes the value of fossil fuel assets, a study shows, despite many oil and gas fields being in other countries.

The researchers estimated that existing oil and gas projects worth $1.4 trillion would lose their value if the world moved decisively to cut carbon emissions and limit global heating to 2C. By tracking many thousands of projects through 1.8 million companies to their ultimate owners, the team found most of the losses would be borne by individual people through their pensions, investment funds, and shareholdings.

The analysis also found that financial institutions have $681 billion worth of these potentially worthless assets on their balance sheets, more than the estimated $250-500 billion of mispriced subprime housing assets that triggered the 2007-08 financial crisis.

The researchers did not predict if or when these fossil fuel “stranded assets” would cause a financial crash, but said the size of the number was worrying. The US and UK are by far the countries with the biggest potential stranded assets in their financial sectors.

Overall, the study calculated that individuals own 54 percent of the $1.4 trillion in oil and gas assets at risk—$756 billion. Three-quarters of these people are in the 38 developed countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group. Governments and corporate creditors carry the balance.

But the proportion is much higher in the US and UK, where individuals own 86 percent and 75 percent of the potentially stranded assets respectively. In contrast, 80 percent of those assets in China are owned by the government.

The rate of change required is “so large that the rapid collapse of fossil fuel industries presents major transition risks,” the study noted.

“It is pretty obvious now that the fossil fuel companies are doing things that are not compatible with mitigating climate change,” said Dr Gregor Semieniuk, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, US, who led the research. The Guardian recently revealed that oil and gas companies are planning scores of vast “carbon bomb” projects that would shatter internationally agreed climate targets.

“I did not imagine that individual people would ultimately end up with so much of the risk,” said Semieniuk. “This is particularly relevant for countries like the US and UK, which show up as very major losers. That is where I think the losses really get spread around society.”

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, said the rate of change needed to tackle the climate crisis was “so large that the rapid collapse of fossil fuel industries presents major transition risks.” The researchers compared a scenario in which little was done to limit global heating and temperatures rise by 3.5C with a scenario in which substantial action was taken and the global temperature rise was limited to 2C.

In the second scenario, oil and gas projects valued today at $1.4 trillion cannot continue production and lose their value. The team traced this loss from 43,439 oil and gas production assets through a network of 1.8m companies to their ultimate owners. They concluded: “Most of the market risk falls on private investors, overwhelmingly in OECD countries, including substantial exposure through pension funds and financial markets.”

The countries hit hardest by losses in the financial sector would be the US, with $283 billion at risk, and the UK ($98 billion), both far above the third-placed nation, the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands ($28 billion). Canada and Australia are in the top six. About 90 percent of the risk in the UK is due to ownership of oil and gas assets in other parts of the world.

Companies in the Middle East do not have such high losses in the 2C scenario because some oil and gas will continue to be used and they are the cheapest suppliers.

Semieniuk said the $681 billion of potentially worthless oil and gas assets on the balance sheets of financial institutions was large compared with the sub-prime housing assets that led to the 2007-08 financial crash.

“One can compare these numbers in the sense that there’s a bunch of mispriced assets floating around, if we believe in climate change mitigation,” he said. “This number is quite worrying. If the transition [to a net zero world] isn’t prudently managed, it raises the risk of financial instability.”

Mike Coffin, at the financial think tank Carbon Tracker Initiative, said the new analysis was complementary to CTI’s own research, which recently found oil companies were at risk of wasting $500 billion on future projects.

Coffin said the study focused on future losses from existing assets. “What is critical is that investors recognize the risk of committing huge amounts of capital in new assets that run the risk of becoming stranded as long-term fossil demand weakens.” The Guardian recently worked with CTI to show the 12 biggest oil companies are on track to spend $103 million a day to 2030 on projects that would mean attempts to keep global heating well below 2C would fail.

The study also focused on exploration and production. But including other parts of the oil and gas industry, such as refineries and equipment suppliers, would increase potential losses, Coffin said. “The overall magnitude of the stranded asset risk within the oil and gas industry is likely to be significantly larger than that quantified in the study.”

The Feds Step in to Investigate the Uvalde Cops’ Response to the Massacre

On Sunday, the US Department of Justice announced it would formally investigate the police response to the murder of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Questions have multiplied about the police response in the aftermath of the killing spree. The gunman spent 78 minutes inside the building, even as the members of the Uvalde Police Department and officers from other law-enforcement agencies gathered outside. Terrified parents gathered, too, and reported being handcuffed and even pepper-sprayed by those same cops. As the massacre dragged on, at least two kids on the inside repeatedly called 911, begging in vain for help. 

“The goal of the review is to provide an independent account of law enforcement actions and responses that day, and to identify lessons learned and best practices to help first responders prepare for and respond to active shooter events,” a DOJ spokesman said in a statement to CNN. “As with prior Justice Department after-action reviews of mass shootings and other critical incidents, this assessment will be fair, transparent, and independent. The Justice Department will publish a report with its findings at the conclusion of its review.”

Previously, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had tried to reassure the public by conducting a much different kind of investigation. In a May 25 press release, his office announced that the state’s assessment of the May 24 debacle is “being led by DPS Texas Rangers and the Uvalde Police Department.” In other words, after what looks like an epochal botching of an effort to save the lives of a mostly Latino group of fourth graders, Abbott had entrusted the Uvalde Police Department to investigate its own performance, aided by the Texas Rangers.

Venerated in pop culture and by politicians like Abbott, the Rangers are a state law-enforcement unit with a long history of atrocities against Native Americans, Mexican nationals, and Mexican Americans. As my colleague Tim Murphy pointed out in a great 2020 article, “unlike the Confederates or Columbus, the Rangers are still around and profiting from their past—they’re a ‘living monument,’ as [a] booster once said.” These days, he added, “the Rangers are the ones brought in to investigate when a local law enforcement officer kills a civilian, or when a Texan dies in custody (such as the 2015 death of Sandra Bland).” Tim quoted Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens: “The Texas Rangers come in and they whitewash the killing and always absolve the local police officer.”

Abbott tapped them to make sense of how the Uvalde Police Department handled last week’s rampage. The dead, the survivors, their families, and the public as a whole are owed a full accounting of what went wrong. The DOJ’s intervention is the least we can ask for.

Scientists Tweaked Genes in a Way that Made Hamsters Very, Very Angry

In the universe of charismatic rodents, the hamster looms large. They’re great pets for kids; as emotional-support animals, they’re “adorable, portable, and convenient,” according to the website ESA Doctors.

But, in what’s perhaps another sign of our dawning dystopia, scientists have managed to use emerging genetic technology to make your friendly hamster into a hyper-aggressive tyrant. Using CRISPR Cas9, a gene-editing technique, a group of University of Georgia researchers took a bunch of hamsters and eliminated a “neurochemical signaling pathway that plays a critical role” in affecting group behavior in mammals—DNA thought to shape “social phenomena ranging from pair bonding, cooperation, and social communication to dominance and aggression,” according to the university’s press release. Shocking the Georgia team, the gene-edited hamsters emerged as bullies. Put a couple into a small cage, and it might turn into the equivalent of an MMA ring—a kind of portable Fight Club set.

The researchers figured what they did would make the fuzzy critters more passive, because they assumed the pathway, known as vasopressin, triggers conflict. “We anticipated that if we eliminated vasopressin activity, we would reduce both aggression and social communication. But the opposite happened,” the eminent neuroscientist  H. Elliott Albers, one of the study’s authors, said in the press release. In other words, they thought the modified hamsters would be more chill. Instead, they became more hostile. Oops.  

Interestingly, male hamsters are prone to showing aggression to other males, but females don’t have that trait. Nixing the vasopressin pathway not only dramatically ramped up same-sex aggression among males, but it made females just as mean to each other as their male counterparts, a finding Albers called “startling.”

In addition to generating funny headlines about turning tiny cuddly pets into “rage monsters,” the Georgia study gets at an important point. Hailed for its precision, CRISPR Cas9 is an incredibly potent tool, and the Georgia study counts as an impressive display of its power.

“Developing gene-edited hamsters was not easy,” Albers said in the press release; and could not have been done without CRISPR. But it also demonstrates the limits of our knowledge of how tinkering with genes affects traits in the real world. “We don’t understand this system as well as we thought we did,” Albers said. “The counterintuitive findings tell us we need to start thinking about the actions of these receptors across entire circuits of the brain and not just in specific brain regions.”

Let’s hope scientists keep their CRISPR experiments confined to the lab until we know much more about the relationship between DNA and traits. Because what the world needs now is not more rage monsters. 

At the NRA Convention, People Blame Mass Shootings on Everything But Guns

The nation has been plunged into despair and mourning. A little more than a week after the slaughter of 10 people by a white supremacist in Buffalo, a gunman killed 19 children and 2 adults in Uvalde, Texas, as police stood by in what seems a glacial and incompetent response. The tragedies renewed calls for gun control. In a national address, President Joe Biden called for a coordinated response to take on the gun lobby. Democratic legislatures have moved to pass gun control legislation at the state level.

And in Houston, the National Rifle Association still threw a party. Despite the tragedies, the NRA’s annual national convention went ahead this weekend. It was, as my colleague Inae Oh wrote, déjà-vu. After the Columbine shooting in 1999, the NRA decided to still hold its convention in Colorado.

Two messages emerged from the assembled throngs and the doting politicians in attendance, just 300 miles from Uvalde: 1) People must continue to enjoy the right to acquire any damn firearm they choose, without meddling from the state; and 2) the massacre had absolutely nothing—not a thing!—to do with the untrammeled commerce in guns. And may in fact have been a staged conspiracy meant to trigger crackdown on this inalienable (and yet recently invented) right . 

A couple of NRA-worshipping politicians (Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. John Cornyn) found the prospect of whipping up fervor for gun acquisition just three days after bullets killed 19 children and two teachers just a bit much, and backed out of scheduled appearances. Former president Donald Trump would not be so deterred. In a rambling hour-long performance that “devolved into a stump speech,” Politico reported, the former president took a poke at his peers who had proven too delicate to appear under the circumstances. “Unlike some, I didn’t disappoint you by not showing up,” Trump told the the cheering crowd. 

He went on to analyze the Uvalde shooter’s act as one of “evil”—and cite it as a reason for Americans to buy and carry more arms. He conjured a future of schools as war zones, teeming with gun-packing teachers (who should be “able to handle” active shooters) and armed-to-the-teeth cops. “Congress should vote immediately to take back every penny of unused Covid relief money … take it back from the states and use that money to quickly establish impenetrable security at every school all across our land,” he declared. And he vowed—suggesting a restoration of his presidency in 2024— to “crack down on violent crime like never before.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz—a staunch Trump ally but a potential rival in 2024—denounced the “elites who dominate our culture, [who] tell us that firearms lie at the root of the problem,” The Washington Post reported. The “real goal” of many politicians on the left “is disarming America.” He added: “It’s far easier to slander one’s political adversaries and to demand that responsible citizens forfeit their constitutional rights than it is to examine the cultural sickness, giving birth to unspeakable acts of evil.” In short, guns don’t kill people; something called “evil” kills people. And the only antidote to it is more guns. 

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem—also a Trump acolyte and possible rival to the GOP throne—delivered perhaps the most unhinged rant of all. She insisted that that the “woke mob” is using the Uvalde atrocity as an excuse to end gun rights. Bizarrely, she suggested that the US founders might have been moved to construct the Second Amendment as a response to the French Revolution, according to an account in Newsweek. “In Paris, which was the center of European learning and culture for a thousand years, mobs tore down statues and crosses,” the governor recounted. “Does that sound familiar?”

In her tortured logic, the French monarchy had fallen to a “woke mob,” and could have maintained power … if only more citizens had been packing guns, which presumably they would have used to shoot the revolutionaries. She continued:

We have seen the same type of radical mob mentality taking place on the streets of American cities that swept Paris in the 1790s.

Woke mobs are tearing down statues, and it doesn’t matter who they are of. Our founding fathers, Catholic missionaries. They even wanted to come after Mt. Rushmore. Well not on my watch.

Not surprisingly, the conference’s attendees proffered dark conspiracies about the Uvalde shootings. One man found the timing suspiciously convenient, Politico reports:

“Why did it happen three days ago?” asked Jim Hollis, a lifetime NRA benefactor from St. Louis. “I’m not sure that there are not forces someplace that somehow find troubled people and nurture and develop them and push them for their own agendas.”

Thus, rather than spark a national reckoning on the recent explosion in gun sales, including the assault rifles preferred by mass shooters, the carnage of children in Uvalde instantly became enmeshed in the forever culture war. And the gun nuts who assembled in Houston are winning. Despite their shrieks of grievance, Congress shows no sign of acting to regulate gun access. And the gun-loving Republican Party looks set to clean up in the November midterm elections. 

Why It Took 35 Years to Develop the First Malaria Vaccine

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

When the World Health Organization approved a malaria vaccine for the first time in October 2021, it was widely hailed as a milestone. “This is a historic moment,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement that month.

The vaccine—dubbed RTS,S—promises a 30 percent reduction in severe malaria in fully vaccinated children. In 2020, a research team estimated that each year, the vaccine could prevent between 3 and 10 million malaria cases, and save the lives of 14,000 to 51,000 small children, depending on how it’s implemented.

What those plaudits often failed to note, though, was that the core ingredient of the path-breaking vaccine was actually almost 35 years old—and that researchers have known since the late 1990s that the formula was probably somewhat effective at protecting against malaria.

At a time when Covid-19 vaccines were developed and authorized in less than one year, the delay for malaria raises a question: Why did a vaccine for a leading global killer take so long to arrive? According to researchers involved in the development of RTS,S, the answer involves the challenges of developing a vaccine against a vexing parasite—and the chronic lack of urgency and funding behind malaria research, which stymied the logistics of research trials at every step.

The people affected by malaria are “not Europeans, they’re not Australians, they are poor African children.”

The people who are affected by malaria, “they’re not Europeans, they’re not Australians, they are poor African children,” said Ashley Birkett, director of the malaria vaccine initiative at PATH, a non-profit global health organization. “Unfortunately, I think we have to accept that that is part of the reason for the lack of urgency in the community.”

Researchers had been searching for a malaria vaccine since the late 1960s. In 1980, they identified a protein that is abundant on the parasite’s surface, called circumsporozoite protein, and realized that a vaccine directed against this protein might grant immunity. After US government researchers sequenced the gene for the protein in 1984, the military asked them to develop a malaria vaccine to protect troops overseas. Government officials then enlisted Smith, Kline & French, a precursor company to the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, to help.

The work, experts recalled, was extremely challenging. The malaria parasite has a notoriously complex life cycle with at least three distinct stages once it’s inside humans, and it is “actually changing clothes during the evolution, during the cycle,” said Lode Schuerman, the scientific affairs director for GSK’s global health vaccines program. Any vaccine developed against a particular stage would have to stop the infection then, and would not work if the parasite has advanced to the next stage. Moreover, basic tools that researchers use today to speed up vaccine development did not yet exist.

More than a dozen attempted vaccines based on the circumsporozoite protein failed. The exception was RTS,S. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the team figured out various technical details, and a 1998 trial in Gambia, involving 250 men, found that the vaccine prevented 34 percent of infections.

“That was really the start of RTS,S,” said Brian Greenwood, an infectious disease expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was involved in the Gambia trial.

Still, attention to the vaccine, Greenwood recalled, was driven more by intellectual interest than a sense of medical urgency—at least for the broader public, beyond American troops. “I don’t think there was any sort of push. It was done by people who were more academics and interested in the immunology,” he said. “It wasn’t seen as a public health issue.”

And, people involved in the vaccine’s development told Undark, the promising shot was about to run into a whole new set of problems: the myriad tribulations that come with testing a vaccine that doesn’t have a commercial market.

In 1999, Ripley Ballou, a vaccinologist who then worked at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, flew to Europe to meet with GSK executives. “I was still in the Army at the time,” he recalled, “and we were there in our uniforms in Belgium.” In a conference room with long tables, Ballou and his colleagues from GSK sat down and presented their findings from the Gambia trial. “We had this glimmer of hope that came from this study that says, ‘you know, what, something is happening here, and we think we really need to take it to the next step,’” he said. And that next step would be to trial the vaccine in the group who would most benefit: children.

GSK agreed to go forward—provided Ballou and his colleagues could come up with some additional funding from a partner organization. There was a high risk the project would fail; even if it did succeed, GSK could expect little financial reward. And the US military was no longer interested in RTS,S, unconvinced the efficacy would do enough to protect the troops.

Instead, the partner organization that funded the work turned out to be the Malaria Vaccine Initiative at PATH established just a year earlier through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We had to go and there would be a building with nothing in it, just a concrete shell, and we had to turn it into a laboratory.”

As the vaccine makers began launching trials in African countries, they soon realized that the task of testing the vaccine was going to be far from easy. There were a lot of logistical issues, said Ballou. “We had to go and there would be a building with nothing in it, just a concrete shell, and we had to turn it into a laboratory,” he recalled. “That took time, that took money.”

These trials were also aimed at young infants and small children, and so the Phase I and II trials, which look at the shot’s safety and efficacy, had to be first conducted in adults, then in older children, and finally in small children—optimizing the dosage against side effects for each age group before moving on. “All that process took about 10 years,” said Greenwood.

The promising results from Phase II trials—in which infants saw a 66 percent reduction in the rate of infection compared to the control group in the months after the third dose—led to a large-scale Phase III trial, which did not begin until 2009. There was a steep learning curve for designing the trial, Ballou said, “Nobody had ever done a malaria vaccine trial at this scale.”

The Phase III trials ran from 2009 to 2014 in seven sub-Saharan African countries. They enrolled over 15,000 children. And the results were promising—so much so that GSK began preparing a manufacturing facility for the shot, according to Schuerman.

But in October 2015, a WHO review of the Phase III trial data found that the rate of meningitis was higher in the vaccinated group than the control and death was higher among girls who had received a vaccine, although whether it was linked to the shot wasn’t clear. To address these issues and to test the vaccine in a broader real-life setting, the WHO asked for an even bigger trial. This announcement came out of the blue, said multiple scientists. “We had to close down and put on hold the whole manufacturing side,” said Schuerman. Instead, he added, once again, the vaccine team was tasked with the slow work of setting up clinical trials: seeking funds, selecting countries for the implementation, and hiring people to conduct the trial.

Today, most researchers agree that the additional study was warranted. “Given the attitude towards vaccines globally, it was important to make sure that we ruled out any potential safety issues,” said Wongani Nyangulu, a physician who leads a phase IV study site in Southern Malawi.

It took four years to launch the trial. Eventually, 900,000 children in Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya received the vaccine. After reviewing the results, the WHO recommended the vaccine for widespread use in areas of moderate to high malaria transmission in October 2021. In December, GAVI, the global agency that funds and distributes vaccines in poor countries, announced it would invest $155.7 million in an RTS,S rollout.

More than 20 years after the first promising trials, RTS,S was ready for widespread use.

By the time RTS,S was approved, vaccines for another global killer, Covid-19, had already been developed and authorized around the world—less than two years after the virus emerged.

The apparent disparities have frustrated some researchers in sub-Saharan Africa. “If the same energy and resources were directed towards malaria vaccine development as has been the case for Covid-19, then malaria could be eradicated,” wrote Damaris Matoke-Muhia, a scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, in an essay for the global development site SciDev.Net last August. (At the time, she noted, malaria was killing more people on the continent than Covid-19.)

Other African researchers have also noted the discrepancy. Deus Ishengoma, a malaria expert at the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania, noted that, considering Covid, it would be “really bad if the world now closes their eyes for diseases like malaria.” The speed of development for the Covid-19 vaccine, he added, meant “we’ll never have a justification or excuse of not making a vaccine for malaria in the next 10 years.”

Other experts cautioned that drawing comparisons between the vaccines is not entirely fair. “Covid is a much easier target for a vaccine,” said Birkett, the PATH executive. Malaria, he added, “is probably an order of magnitude more difficult.” The efficacy of RTS,S, several experts said, likely also slowed down the process. And antimalarial drugs and other tools have long helped offset the burden of malaria, said Birkett, so the vaccine wasn’t a priority in the same sense compared to Covid-19.

“This is the problem that you face when you’re trying to develop a vaccine that nobody wants to pay for.”

Still, experts said, the disparity reflects longstanding patterns in which deadly diseases receive attention—and which do not. “Primarily, this is the problem that you face when you’re trying to develop a vaccine that nobody wants to pay for,” said Ballou.

The funding woes plagued each and every step of development, said Birkett. “We had to go very sequentially, step by step by step, generate the data, go and raise the money, design the protocol.” Several experts worry that funding shortfalls will also hamper the rollout of RTS,S. This is the biggest risk the vaccine program faces right now, said Ballou. Funds for malaria vaccine R&D—especially for clinical development—have been on a downward trend since 2017, and in 2020 dropped by $21 million, a 15 percent drop from the earlier year, according to Policy Cures Research, a global health think tank.

The development of RTS,S, however, has paved the way for next-generation malaria vaccines. The University of Oxford’s R21 vaccine, which showed a promising 77 percent efficacy in Phase II trials, is probably next in line. “They are going to benefit tremendously from the delivery system and the regulators, as everybody is used to it,” said Greenwood. Still, R21 might not be a game changer, as it’s based on the same underlying formula as RTS,S, said Birkett, and “all the data suggests, so far, it’s going to be very similar.”

In July 2021, BioNTech, a German biotech company which co-created the first mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, also announced plans to use the same technology to develop a malaria vaccine, with clinical trials planned for 2022.

The next round of vaccines, should they prove safe and more efficacious, should take far fewer than 35 years to come to market. “I’m very confident,” said Birkett, “that we can go faster next time.”

The Delayed Police Response to the Tragedy at Uvalde Has Made Pro Law-Enforcement Lawmakers Furious

More details are emerging over just how long law enforcement took to stop the Uvalde school shooting this week, including horrifying descriptions of how children suffered while police waited outside gathering resources and preparing themselves to intervene. As it becomes apparent that law enforcement delayed up to an hour before storming the building, criticism of their performance and their previous account of the event is growing. On Saturday, Texas’ lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, a conservative who has made attacking those who criticize law enforcement a key part of his political brand, said on Fox & Friends that he and others in the Texas government “were not told the truth” following the Uvdale shooting that killed 19 children and two adults.

Initial reports, provided by law enforcement sources immediately after the shooting, described armed school security and local police officers engaging in a gun battle with the shooter, and then working to quickly rescue surviving children. That narrative changed over subsequent hours and days as details began to emerge of the scene both in and outside the school. Parents, who frantically waited outside the school as the shooting continued, fought with law enforcement who tried to prevent them from entering the building, even as they failed to move into the school themselves and confront the shooter. One mother who wanted to gain access said she was handcuffed by US marshals and threatened with arrest. On Friday, transcripts of 911 calls made by children begging for help from the classrooms for as long as an hour were released. 

Investigators now say that the school district’s police department chief ordered officers to hold back from confronting the shooter because he thought it was a siege situation, in which shooter was isolated and could be approached by law enforcement, and not an active shooter continuing to threaten children’s lives. School shooting experts say that was the wrong choice and goes contrary to training in the decades since the Columbine shooting in 1999.

On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged that he was mistaken in his earlier praise for law enforcement’s response. At a press conference on Wednesday, Abbott had claimed, “As horrible as what happened, it could have been worse. The reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do. They showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives.”

On Friday, Abbott said he was “livid” that he had been given wrong information. 

On Saturday, Patrick joined his colleagues and said the initial reports were wrong: No armed security confronted the shooter, and local police officers arrived only after he had entered the school and did not confront him directly. As Patrick told the Fox hosts:

We were told that there was a security officer and they were a little hazy on how the engagement went, but that a security officer was there. Well, it turned out he was not on campus. He drove on to the campus, but he was not on campus, as we were told and led to believe. No one mentioned the fact that there was this 45 minute-to-an-hour hold by the chief of the police of the school district while there were still shots being fired.

Patrick has been most visible in the days after the Uvalde tragedy, appearing in public events and on cable news saying that faith in Jesus Christ is one of the most important ways to respond to the shootings.

.@TuckerCarlson asked me to come on this evening and I shared with him what a heartbreaking night this is for everyone. pic.twitter.com/RHKc9WmpIl

— Dan Patrick (@DanPatrick) May 25, 2022

On Saturday, as the National Rifle Association conducted the second day of their convention in Houston,  Texas Democratic lawmakers opted for a more direct route to address the problem of mass shootings. They proposed a special session to vote on raising the age to purchase a gun and requiring background checks. The Uvalde shooter waited until the day after he turned 18, the minimum age to buy guns, to purchase the weapons he used, and didn’t have to submit to a background check.

Insurers’ Efforts to Curb Wasteful Spending Is Driving Doctors Nuts

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

Last December, a young patient was admitted to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, after several medications had failed to quell the child’s relentless seizures. A hospital pediatrician, Vignesh Doraiswamy, consulted with neurologists and then tried a different drug. The child had fewer seizures, became more interactive, and was ready to go back home, says Doraiswamy. But there was a problem: The patient’s insurance company refused to authorize the new medication for the parents to administer. The family had to remain in the hospital for at least two more days, Doraiswamy recalls, while the decision went through an appeals process.

Doctors have long asserted that prior authorization—the need to get approval from the patient’s insurer before proceeding with treatment—causes delays that can hurt patient care. In an American Medical Association survey conducted in December 2021, one-third of physicians reported that such delays have caused at least one of their patients to experience a serious problem, such as hospitalization, the development of a birth defect, disability, and even death. In that same survey, more than 80 percent of surveyed doctors said patients at least sometimes abandon their recommended treatment because of prior authorization hassles. Just over half of the physicians who treat adult patients in the workforce said prior authorization has interfered with patients’ ability to do their jobs.

Physicians want laws to curtail the crushing burden of faxes and calls insurers impose on them as a requirement for coverage.

Prior authorizations also exact a toll on doctors, who say the paperwork has gotten out of hand. The average physician must now seek approval for dozens of prescriptions and medical services each week, an administrative burden that contributes to burnout and costs physician practices an estimated $26.7 billion in time each year.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, prior authorization is one of several strategies that insurers use to reduce wasteful medical spending. (Other strategies include patient cost-sharing and requiring patients to try low-cost drugs before the insurance company will pay for a more expensive therapy.) These strategies can discourage the use of inappropriate and overpriced medications and promote the use of better options. But, as drug prices rise, insurers are intensifying prior authorization requirements and physician practices have built up a huge infrastructure to fight for the drugs they want to prescribe.

Frustrated physicians are turning to state and federal legislators, hoping elected representatives will force insurers to curtail the crushing burden of faxes and phone calls needed to get permission to do what physicians think is right. In 2021, Congressman Ami Bera, an internal medicine physician, joined three colleagues to introduce a bipartisan prior authorization reform bill. Nearly 300 members of Congress have since signed on to the House bill or a companion bill in the Senate.

(The AMA, as well as health insurance companies and their trade groups, donate to both major political parties and are among the top spenders in lobbying Congress.)

Bera says that, since the vast majority of prior authorization requests are eventually authorized, insurers’ overzealous use of the strategy merely delays care and wastes physicians’ time instead of saving the health care system money. With the help of legislation like his, Bera said, “We could actually move the pendulum back towards doctors taking care of patients.”

The idea that insurance companies could influence how patients should be treated emerged in the 1980s, when insurers began requiring pre-approval for some hospital admissions and high-cost procedures before they would agree to pay for them. In the ensuing decades prior authorization was extended to new high-cost drugs.

The anti-seizure medication that worked for Doraiswamy’s patient is expensive. But in recent years, some insurers have started requiring prior authorization even for low-cost generic drugs, said Andrew Spector, a neurologist who specializes in sleep medicine at Duke Health. “And it’s unclear why.”

According to AHIP, a trade group formerly known as America’s Health Insurance Plans, the goal of prior authorization is to improve the quality of care, protect patient safety, and avoid inappropriate care. In an email to Undark, spokesperson Kristine Grow wrote: “Patients deserve the most effective, safest, and most affordable care. That’s what prior authorization helps deliver.”

Some insurers have started requiring prior authorization even for low-cost generic drugs. “And it’s unclear why.”

Insurers say their efforts are working: 91 percent of health-plan respondents to a 2019 AHIP survey said prior authorization had an “overall positive impact” on the quality and affordability of care, and 84 percent said it positively impacted patient safety.

When he was a practicing pediatrician, Thomas Schenk was as annoyed by prior authorization hassles as most doctors are. But when he became chief medical officer for a regional health plan in western New York, seeing the claims filed by physicians gave him a new perspective. While most physicians do follow evidence-based guidelines and request only the drugs and services their patients need, not all of them do so. For example, doctors who rarely see patients with migraines are likely to order more tests, perhaps more than are warranted, to confirm a diagnosis than doctors with more experience, he said.

And the addition of high-cost equipment—say, a magnetic resonance imaging machine—inevitably leads to more frequent use. “If a practice buys a new MRI, there will be an increase in MRI orders” by the practice’s physicians, said Schenk, now chief medical officer at a health technology firm.

More fundamentally, prior authorization helps control wasteful spending just by existing as a process, he said. Knowing that an insurer will balk at approving a costly brand-name drug if a lower-cost generic is effective, many doctors will automatically choose the generic to avoid a prior authorization fight.

Physicians and insurers do have some common ground. Insurers agree that prior authorization approvals can be burdensome for everybody involved. Many physicians agree that prior authorization can be appropriate for some costly drugs or procedures that should only be used in limited situations. In fact, in 2018, AHIP, the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and several other major industry groups signed a consensus statement attesting to their shared commitment to improve prior authorization processes.

But there is no consensus that anything has improved since then. “It really appears that the number of cases where we have to do a prior auth and the kind of delayed tactics that are being applied through the prior auth system really appear to have gotten worse to me,” said John Ratliff, a spine neurosurgeon at Stanford Medicine. “That’s my perception as an individual practicing physician, but I also hear it from our surgery schedulers who run into many more challenges with getting surgeries approved, and I hear it from other neurosurgeons around the United States.”

The Medical Group Management Association, a trade group for physician practices, polled its members in 2019, a year after the consensus statement. Ninety percent said prior authorization requirements had increased. In its latest survey, conducted this spring, 98 percent said the situation had gotten worse or stayed the same over the past year.

The burden of prior authorization on individual physicians varies greatly, depending on the medical specialty, the insurance companies they work with, and other factors. The AHIP survey found that the health plans covering the vast majority of enrollees limit prior authorization to fewer than 10 percent of prescription medications and less than 25 percent of medical services. But over a quarter of the drugs covered by Medicare Part D plans—private prescription-drug insurance for people 65 and older—required prior authorization in 2021, up from just 8 percent in 2007, according to the federal government. For certain classes of drugs, including antidepressants and multiple sclerosis treatments, a majority of drugs require prior authorization.

Prior authorization isn’t just a quick phone call to the insurance company; it’s often a weeks-long tug-of-war

Physicians decry the quantity of authorizations they are forced to request and the lengthy process this entails. Prior authorization isn’t just a quick phone call to the insurance company and an immediate answer; rather, it’s often a weeks-long tug-of-war in which only the insurer knows the rules of the game, according to Jack Resneck Jr., a dermatologist in San Francisco and president-elect of the American Medical Association.

For starters, doctors often do not know that prior authorization is required for a drug until the pharmacy calls to say the insurer has rejected the claim. Then the physician or their staff must submit documentation to justify the request, but each insurer has its own forms, processes, and criteria.

Although some insurers use electronic prior authorization systems, cumbersome faxes and phone calls are the most common methods of making a prior authorization request. Physicians or their staff members are routinely on hold for 20 minutes or more for a prior authorization call, according to the American Hospital Association; many health plans do not have anyone to field calls on evenings or weekends, leaving patients stranded in the emergency department or hospital bed, waiting for the insurer to decide what care will be delivered.

The resources needed to deal with those requests adds up. The University of Utah Department of Dermatology, for example, employs two full-time and eight part-time employees specifically to deal with prior authorizations. An analysis of a single month, September 2016, found that the department spent almost $6,000 in administrative costs for prior authorizations.

Doctors also lament that prior authorization rules are contradictory. Insurers say they use evidence about the safety and efficacy of a drug or service to make their decisions about what to pay for, but they do not agree on what constitutes appropriate care. For example, HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is highly effective in reducing HIV infections, and most insurers do not require prior authorization for its use. But 37 percent of plans in the South do require prior authorization. In the Northeast, just 2 percent of insurers do so.

Ratliff, the spine neurosurgeon, was scheduled to operate on a young veterinarian suffering terrible pain caused by herniated discs—until the insurer declined the request. The patient “couldn’t hold her head in the right position to be taking care of animals,” he said. “So she’s out of work.”

After a month’s delay, the insurer authorized the procedure. “It’s not like these procedures are getting denied,” he said. “It’s just roadblocks that are being put up that delay care.”

Doraiswamy, the hospitalist in Columbus, agrees. He eventually got approval for the drug that relieved his young patient’s seizures, just as he knew he would. “The prior authorization process really is just a lot of bureaucracy, red tape, and headaches,” he said. “I see a lot of children and their families who really suffer through delays in care. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if almost universally the meds didn’t get approved at the end of the day anyway.”

Indeed, the majority of prior authorization requests are approved, according to physician and hospital surveys. The University of Utah Department of Dermatology found that 99.6 percent of requests for procedures in September 2016 were approved, along with the majority of medications.

Additionally, many requests that are denied should have been approved, according to a new report from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services. Its investigation of Medicare Advantage plans—a privatized type of Medicare coverage for people 65 and older—during a single week in June 2019 found that 13 percent of their prior authorization denials were for services that should have been covered.

“Every delay that they can throw at us is another day that they haven’t had to pay for the drug.”

And even requests that are initially denied are often approved upon appeal—a phenomenon that makes some physicians believe that prior authorization delays are a financial game for insurers, who hold onto their money while the prior authorization process plays out. “Every delay that they can throw at us is another day that they haven’t had to pay for the drug,” Spector said.

In written comments, AHIP’s Grow said prior authorization helps avoid unnecessary medical spending and abuse that can make insurance premiums less affordable: “Let me be clear: Prior authorization helps save money for patients and consumers—not for health insurance providers—and protects the safe care of patients.”

At the request of patient and physician advocates, 41 states are considering or have taken action to reform prior authorization. In 2021, for example, Texas lawmakers created a system that exempts physicians from preauthorization if at least 90 percent of their requests for a given service are approved over a six-month period.

But state laws have limited effectiveness because insurers change their authorization rules so frequently and because drugmakers are producing such expensive therapies, said William Soliman, founder of the National Board of Prior Authorization Specialists. “It’s going to be a challenge to try to legislate in a meaningful way to try to alleviate the burden on patients,” he said.

Ratliff chairs the Washington Committee of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Congress of Neurological Surgeons. His group supports a federal response and is pushing Congress to pass Rep. Bera’s bill, the Improving Seniors’ Timely Access to Care Act. The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and more than 400 other groups also support the bill.

Among other things, the reform bill would require some insurers to use electronic prior authorization programs and render immediate decisions for certain prior authorization requests. Insurers would have to identify all the items and services for which prior authorization is required and list the documentation needed to support any request.

AHIP did not respond to a request for comment on the bill.

The proposed legislation applies only to insurance companies that offer Medicare Advantage plans because Congress has more direct authority over the Medicare program than private insurance companies. But Ratliff and other advocates think that, if insurers are forced to adopt new ways for their Medicare Advantage business, they will apply the same processes to their other plans.

Meanwhile, Spector is waiting impatiently for relief. He recently received a copy of a denial letter an insurance company sent to one of his patients. The letter explained that the authorization had been denied because the requested medication is only approved for narcolepsy. The letter went on to say, Spector said, “‘Your doctor submitted a claim and said that you have narcolepsy.’”

“It’s as ridiculous as it sounds,” Spector wrote in a follow-up email to Undark. “They actually denied the claim for narcolepsy saying it would only be approved for narcolepsy. Human error? Malice? Incompetence? I can’t explain it.”

Cowardice Is No Longer an Excuse

As gun violence ravages communities and the country reels from a string of horrific mass shootings, Americans have been left with an all-too-familiar question: Will our lawmakers finally do something to stop the carnage? We’ve been here before, many times; we’ve watched as Republicans (and some Democrats) bowed to pressure from the National Rifle Association and blocked even the most basic gun control measures.

But as the Trace’s Mike Spies pointed out the day after the Uvalde massacre, there actually has been a seismic shift in the political landscape. The NRA is still a powerful force, but years of scandal and infighting and a failed attempt to declare bankruptcy may have left it substantially weaker than it was in 2013, when pro-gun forces killed a bipartisan background check bill in the wake of the Sandy Hook murders:

2/Its longtime PR firm, which served as the voice of the organization and devised Wayne LaPierre’s persona, is long gone. Its most effective spokespeople are long gone. Its most effective leader, Chris Cox, is long gone. Cox’s team is gone. Oliver North is long gone.

— mike spies (@mikespiesnyc) May 26, 2022

The NRA still spends millions on lobbying, but Chris Cox, its legendary chief lobbyist, stepped down in 2019. The group shelled out more than $29 million on the 2020 elections, according to Open Secrets. But that was barely half of what it spent in 2016.

Fear of the NRA is no longer a viable explanation: “At this stage, any decision the GOP makes is its own.”

In short, the nation’s most powerful gun-rights lobby simply has less muscle than it once did to bully Republicans who might otherwise support at least modest gun legislation. Fear, cowardice, and deference to a big-spending political organization—these are no longer sufficient explanations for lawmakers who refuse to act. Already, political media is awash in leaks and speculation about bipartisan negotiations and optimism that just maybe this time will be different—just maybe 10 Republicans will actually vote their conscience. There’s plenty of well-earned cynicism and doubt, too. We’ll see. But as Spies puts it, “At this stage, any decision the GOP makes is its own.”

Spies’ observation actually seems quite relevant to another political powerhouse whose ability to enforce obedience from the Republican Party took a big hit this week: Donald Trump.

It was just two months ago—at a campaign rally for David Perdue—that Trump doubled down on his intention to purge Georgia of every Republican official who had committed a “dereliction of duty” by refusing to help him overturn the 2020 election. “Before we can defeat the Democrat Socialists and Communists,” he said, “we first have to defeat the RINOs, sellouts, and the losers in the primaries.”

That night, Trump railed against Gov. Brian Kemp, the “Republican in name only” whom the defeated president seems to blame more than anyone for thwarting his attempts to cling to power. Trump also blasted Brad Raffensperger, the GOP secretary of state who rejected (and then blew the whistle on) Trump’s request to “find 11,780 votes” so he could prevail in Georgia. And he attacked Chris Carr, Georgia’s Republican attorney general, who had sided with Kemp and Raffensperger in the election dispute. Carr was a “disaster,” Trump said.

When Trump first set out to organize primary challenges against these Republicans, his efforts felt ominous. The disgraced chief executive intended to wield the MAGA movement as a weapon to enshrine the Big Lie as official party dogma and punish any public servant—no matter how far right—who dared to stand up for democracy. It seemed impossible that Kemp and his allies could survive the onslaught, and it was only a matter of time before a combination of primary defeats and political fear would lay the groundwork for Team Trump to steal the 2024 election. There would be no more Republican governors or secretaries of state or local canvassing board members willing to certify Democratic victories.

But then something strange happened. Trump failed in Georgia. Spectacularly.

Kemp easily won his primary Tuesday night, crushing Perdue by more than 50 percentage points. Carr beat election denier John Gordon by a similar margin. Raffensperger—the most endangered of the bunch—managed to eke out a clear majority and avoid a runoff against his Trump-anointed MAGA challenger, Jody Hice. Trump had even endorsed a member of his post-election legal team, Patrick Witt, in a bizarre bid to unseat a Kemp ally as the state’s insurance commissioner. Witt received just 17 percent of the vote.

Those weren’t the only embarrassments Trump suffered Tuesday night. Two of his hand-picked congressional candidates in Georgia—Jake Evans and Vernon Jones—limped into runoffs in their respective primaries. In Alabama, Trump had originally endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks for the state’s open Senate seat. Brooks’ campaign quickly fizzled, and Trump apparently tried to save face by un-endorsing the hard-right congressman, arguing—somewhat absurdly—that Brooks had been insufficiently supportive of his election lies. All this was widely assumed to be a death blow for Brooks’ political future, but it wasn’t. On Tuesday, Brooks finished a distant second place, but that was enough to qualify for a runoff.

“There’s more and more folks that have the confidence to walk out in front of what used to look like a freight train but now is just a matchbox car.”

Trump did have some successes. Republican voters overwhelmingly renominated Ken Paxton, the scandal-plagued Texas attorney general behind one of the most outrageous legal efforts to overturn the 2020 contest. Trump’s choice for lieutenant governor in Georgia, Burt Jones, also secured the GOP nomination. Jones—who was one of the fake electors the Trump campaign infamously tried to send to the Electoral College—is seeking to replace Geoff Duncan, one of the party’s most vocal critics of Trump’s Big Lie.

A year ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Duncan winning a Republican primary, and he chose not to run again. One wonders if he’d make the same decision today. He recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a lot of Republicans were “vicariously living” through him. “But everyday there’s more and more folks that have the confidence to walk out in front of what used to look like a freight train but now is just a matchbox car,” he said.

The power of the MAGA movement isn’t exactly waning. Kemp, one of America’s most conservative governors, has taken pains to avoid criticizing Trump. “I’m not mad at him,” he told reporters Monday. But Kemp has proven that it’s possible for a Republican tell Trump no—to refuse his demand to carry out a coup, and to emerge from that fight stronger than ever.

On democracy, as on firearms, Republicans now have a real choice. If they choose to help steal elections, it’s because they want to. If they choose to ignore the gun crisis, it’s because they want to do that, too. Trump can’t force them to do anything. Neither can the NRA. Cowardice is no longer an excuse.

And the Winner of the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard Trial Is…Men

In May 2016, when TMZ broke the news that a judge had granted actor Amber Heard a temporary restraining order against her then-husband, Johnny Depp, it took less than a day for the story to get picked up by USA Today, the Today Show, the Guardian, and countless celebrity outlets. The New York Post referred to Depp as a “drunken, paranoid, wine-bottle-flinging wife-beater” in its sensational summary of Heard’s claims as she filed for the protective order. The cover of People magazine showed Heard with bruises around her eyes and a cut lip. The magazine’s cover line promised to take readers “inside their toxic marriage.”

Two years later, after the MeToo movement took off, Heard published her own op-ed in the Washington Post. The article, ghostwritten by an ACLU staffer and timed to coincide with Heard’s new movie Aquaman, called for policy efforts like reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which funds responses to gender-based violence, and opposing new regulations around Title IX that lessened schools’ responsibility to respond to reports of sexual assault and harassment. Heard didn’t explicitly name Depp but referred to her personal experience of having become, in 2016, “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” She continued that she had seen “in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.” The Washington Post’s headline appeared in her tweet about the article: “Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.”

Now, those turns of phrase are at the heart of the six-week televised circus of a trial that has competed with news of mass shootings, the ongoing pandemic, and the war in Ukraine, while flooding social media with anti-Heard hate from Depp’s massive fanbase. He has demanded $50 million in damages for Heard’s statements; she’s filed a $100 million counterclaim alleging that Depp defamed her when his lawyer told the press that her claims of abuse were a “hoax” and an “ambush.” Notably, Depp has already lost a defamation case against the Sun in the UK, where libel laws are friendlier to plaintiffs, after a judge ruled that an article calling him a “wife-beater” was accurate, and that Depp had assaulted Heard on 12 occasions.

Despite common misperceptions, the seven jurors currently deliberating in a Fairfax, Virginia, court are not deciding whether Depp abused Heard, or Heard abused Depp, (or both), but whether her words in the op-ed amounted to “defamation.” Was it false for Heard to say she had become “a public figure representing domestic abuse,” two years after that People magazine cover? Did her language—not her original 2016 allegations, but the implications of her 2018 op-ed—damage Depp’s reputation? 

By centering on these questions, the Depp-Heard trial is about issues far deeper than which celebrity is in the wrong. It’s about whether survivors can talk about their experiences without being dragged to court and forced to prove their stories. And while the spectacle is reinforcing the fears of some survivors that coming forward means facing a raft of additional abuse—if not from a celebrity fanbase, then from friends and family—the public sympathy toward Depp is also freeing other survivors to speak: men who have been victims in violent relationships.

You don’t have to join team #IBelieveAmberHeard to recognize that Depp’s lawsuit is part of a trend. Since the MeToo movement five years ago, defamation lawsuits by men accused of sexual misconduct have become a tool of choice for countering allegations—and punishing those who make them. Artists Nelly and Drake, former Pittsburgh Steeler Antonio Brown, and former Tinder CEO Greg Blatt have all filed lawsuits similar to Depp’s. Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore recently lost his defamation lawsuit against Leigh Corfman, one of several women who said Moore had preyed on them when they were underage. (Corfman also lost a suit of her own arguing that Moore’s denials of her story were a kind of defamation.) The actor Evan Rachel Wood was sued for defamation in March by her ex-fiancé, Marilyn Manson—a pal of Johnny Depp’s—whom she says raped and abused her during their relationship.

The trend isn’t limited to celebrities or politicians. In a 2020 investigation, I found dozens of cases involving non-public figures—an airport maintenance chief, a massage therapist, an acroyoga instructor—who filed defamation lawsuits against people who had accused them of sexual misconduct or domestic abuse. One woman was sued after reporting an alleged rape to the police, another after filing a workplace sexual harassment complaint against her manager. As I reported two years ago

Attorneys confirm that these suits are becoming more common. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which helps workplace harassment victims pay their legal bills, has assisted 33 accusers, including Lopez, who have been sued for defamation in the past two years—nearly 20 percent of its caseload. As the number of cases grows, so does the chilling effect: Defamation lawsuits are being used “more and more to try to silence people from coming forward,” says Sharyn Tejani, director of Time’s Up. “It was not something that we expected would take as much of our time and money as it has.”

Bruce Johnson, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in First Amendment cases, says that before fall 2017, he was contacted twice a year by women who were worried about being sued if they spoke out about sexual violence or harassment or who were threatened with legal retribution for doing so. Now it’s every two weeks, he says. Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez, a lawyer who represents both survivors and accused perpetrators in campus-related cases in Colorado and Arizona, has also noticed more accusers speaking out and facing the prospect of being sued.

Such suits are particularly common on college campuses, and even among high school students, says Maha Ibrahim, a senior attorney representing young survivors at civil rights litigation firm Equal Rights Advocates. “We represent the ordinary folks, and now they’re the ones getting threatened all the time,” Ibrahim says. “The minute you say you’re a survivor, there’s this concern about defamation.”

Sometimes the cases are only threatened, never filed. Other times, no threat is needed—the fear of legal blowback is enough to keep would-be whistleblowers silent. According to Ibrahim, Equal Rights Advocates has received calls from students as young as 15 who were afraid of being sued for defamation for reporting an assault to their school or going to a Take Back the Night rally. Those fears of legal blowback are rational, Ibrahim explains. Even if a survivor is sure to win a defamation lawsuit, she says, “it’s going to be so expensive and so traumatic to defend yourself, and it’s going to distract so much…that the tables are going to be completely turned. It’s not illogical for survivors to pause and say, ‘Is it worth it to come forward?’”

If lawyers and mainstream advocates were already concerned about the rise of MeToo defamation lawsuits, the extreme vitriol directed at Heard online has shown how powerful such suits can be in harnessing public opinion. On Thursday, Heard testified that she faces death threats every day. A few minutes on a popular YouTube stream of the trial reveals a torrent of gendered abuse in the comments—criticizing Heard for crying or not crying enough, calling her a “gold-digger” and “crazy lunatic woman,” speculating about the smell of her body. “Anybody who is sued by an ex is going to look to this case as what hell awaits them if the matter goes to trial,” says Carrie Goldberg, a victim rights attorney whose firm often defends survivors from defamation claims.

“I was begging Johnny to not make me prove what I’ve had to sit on the stand in front of all of you and prove,” Heard said on the stand last week, explaining a recording of a phone call in which she pleaded with him for a mutual gag order. “I was begging not to do this, not to sit where I’m sitting today. I didn’t want this. I don’t want to be here.”

“Anybody who is sued by an ex is going to look to this case as what hell awaits them if the matter goes to trial.”

Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, has warned that the online tempest surrounding the trial—which is being watched by millions—could have a “chilling effect” on victims of domestic violence as they consider seeking safety or help and weigh the risks of backlash from supporters or family. The takeaway for survivors, according to Glenn: “You will be ridiculed, mocked and further harassed if you come forward, if you say anything.”

That warning resonates with Nomi Abadi, a pianist and composer who told the Hollywood Reporter a few months ago that she’d survived sexual assault in her industry. Abadi, the founder of the Female Composer Safety League, has not revealed publicly who hurt her. “I actually consider it every day, watching this,” Abadi tells me. “Maybe I shouldn’t go public, because people are going to think of me the same way that they think of Amber Heard.”

Abadi says she’s far less interested in the actual court case between Depp and Heard than the public conversation around it. What factors make people more hostile or sympathetic to Heard’s story? “That’s what affects me,” she explains. “How am I supposed to come forward, as a victim who has not come forward yet? How am I supposed to come forward in a post-Amber Heard, Johnny Depp climate?”

Throughout the trial, Depp has maintained that he never assaulted Heard; rather, his legal team argues that she was the primary aggressor in the relationship, abusing him physically, verbally, and emotionally. The public sympathy for this version of the story has resonated powerfully for victims who identify with Depp. “I do think that male victims of domestic abuse are watching this very closely,” says Denise Hines, a George Mason University professor who studies the experiences of male domestic abuse victims. One man who told NBC News that he’d survived domestic and sexual abuse said that after watching Depp testify that Heard had abused him, he opened up about his own experiences to his friends for the first time. Another male victim said seeing a celebrity of Depp’s stature say he was abused made him feel less alone.

According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 7 men experiences severe physical violence by an intimate partner during his lifetime. Yet straight male victims don’t recognize their experiences as abuse, or aren’t aware that agencies that help female survivors also will offer them services, says Emily Douglas, chair of the Department of Social Work & Child Advocacy at Montclair State University. And when they do tell others what they’re going through, Hines says, they’re often met with laughter or asked what they did to deserve it.

So the overwhelmingly sympathetic public reaction to Depp “might open the gates for more sympathy and empathy for male victims,” Hines says. “Men who can relate to the story that Johnny Depp is telling might actually now be more likely to come forward and tell people in their lives what’s going on, or what happened in a previous relationship.”

It may be the only silver lining of a toxic trial that stands to harm many more people than the parties in the courtroom. “The whole trial, unfortunately, does disadvantage female victims because of the vitriol against Amber Heard,” Hines says. “If there’s a male abuser out there who’s watching this and thinks he can use the Johnny Depp trial to his advantage, and paint his girlfriend or wife out to be Amber Heard, the way this is all playing out in the media, he’s going to do it.” 

“It Was The Wrong Decision. Period.”

Plenty of questions remain over the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre. But three days into the investigation, one thing is now for certain: law enforcement officials catastrophically mismanaged their response as 19 children and two teachers were killed inside a single classroom.

“From the benefit of hindsight where I’m sitting now, of course it was the wrong decision—period,” Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety Steven McCraw told reporters at a tense press conference on Friday. McCraw was referring to the call by the on-scene commander at the time of Tuesday’s attack to not enter the classroom where an 18-year-old gunman had been located for more than an hour. The damning assessment comes a day after officials confirmed that “numerous” officers had been stationed just outside the classroom—only to retreat and wait for a special tactical team to arrive.

“There’s no excuse for that,” McCraw continued, before appearing to offer exactly that: “Again, I wasn’t there.”

"How many kids could have been saved had they breached the room?"

"I don't know." pic.twitter.com/TDbElnY4mV

— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) May 27, 2022

The press conference is sure to fuel public outrage as questions mount over the nearly 90-minute delay in police response—and what exactly transpired between the first 911 calls and when police eventually killed the 18-year-old gunman. In the wake of Tuesday’s massacre—the second deadliest school shooting in US history—law enforcement officials have repeatedly offered contradictory accounts of how they handled the shooting inside Robb Elementary School.

Texas DPS official refuses to say why officers didn't breach the door of the classroom for the hour that the Uvalde shooter was in there shooting children. pic.twitter.com/br2fdYruty

— Greg Price (@greg_price11) May 26, 2022

“If I thought it would help, I would apologize,” McCraw said on Friday. For the family members of Tuesday’s massacre, it surely won’t.

Monkeypox Disinfo Is Just Like Covid Disinfo—Plus Homophobia

Once upon a time, Alex Berenson was a New York Times journalist covering major stories, from the Iraq war to Hurricane Katrina to the Bernie Madoff scandal. But over the last several years, he’s increasingly focused on a new pet project: owning the libs. In his Substack newsletter “Unreported Truths” he rails against Joe Biden, derides the pro-choice movement, and complains about inflation to his “tens of thousands of subscribers.”

One of Berenson’s favorite themes has been to downplay the effectiveness of the Covid vaccines—and it’s this work in particular that has made him a star. Before Twitter kicked him off the platform for spreading vaccine disinformation last year, he had hundreds of thousands of followers. Berenson’s Substack newsletters over the last month have mostly been more of the same: He rails against “woke media whoppers about Covid vaccines” and describes Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman as a “fat vaccinated cannabis activist.”

But earlier this week, Berenson took aim at a new target: the growing global outbreak of the monkeypox virus. In a post titled “Is It Monkeypox or Crystalpox?” Berenson writes that public health authorities have “almost got another epidemic on the go—the perfect way to distract the shiny-haired robots in the media from the complete failure of the mRNA vaccines.” He then goes on to argue that monkeypox is strictly a disease of gay men. “Are you a gay man who likes sex with lots of other gay men?” he wrote. “Maybe in a bathhouse? Maybe names optional? Maybe with a meth bump on the side? No? Are you sure?… Okay. Don’t worry about the monkeypox thing then.”

With those two points—a supposedly overblown illness plus some homophobia—Berenson did what anti-vaccine activists do best. He managed to build upon his previous talking points and pivot to the current news cycle, neatly weaving the latest headlines into a grand conspiracy theory with necessary villains and egregious profiteering.

There is seemingly no topic too far afield for these zealots to exploit. Recently, I’ve reported on anti-vaccine influencers’ embrace of pro-Kremlin ideology and their promotion of dangerous disinformation about the baby formula shortage. But the monkeypox outbreak offers especially fertile ground because it allows the purveyors of misinformation to recycle many of the same talking points that they developed for Covid. The addition of homophobic rhetoric is particularly toxic, as it’s likely to unite anti-LGBTQ extremists with Covid denialists. As Yale epidemiologist and AIDS activist Gregg Gonsalves put it on Twitter earlier this week, this might be “that moment when homophobia meets far right pandemic politics.”

Let’s dispense with a few facts for some context: The monkeypox outbreak isn’t even a month old; the World Health Organization reported the first cases on May 13. The total count now exceeds 250 across 16 countries. The disease, which causes flu-like symptoms and painful lesions and is fatal in about 3-6 percent of cases, is endemic in parts of Africa, where outbreaks can often be traced back to contact with animals. Though monkeypox can be transmitted between humans, it isn’t nearly as transmissible as Covid—it usually requires close contact to spread, says Derek Walsh, a microbiology and immunology professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Walsh, whose lab studies poxviruses, a class of illnesses that includes both monkeypox and its deadlier cousin, smallpox, emphasized in an email that although many of the cases in the current outbreak happen to be among men in the LGBTQ community, “There is no reason to believe now it has mutated to only spread sexually amongst men who have sex with men.”

“There is no reason to believe now it has mutated to only spread sexually amongst men who have sex with men.”

Contrary to what Berenson claimed, Walsh said, the fact that thus far the disease has spread in this particular population is likely a coincidence. The initial patients probably “passed it on simply due to the close contact of sex, not necessarily sex itself and sex alone, before we became aware of the outbreak.” Indeed, a top adviser to the World Health Organization told the Associated Press earlier this week that he believed the outbreak was a “random event” that happened to spread at two raves in Spain and Belgium.

The rumors that monkeypox is a disease of gay men are a visceral reminder to public health experts of the terrifying early days of the HIV epidemic in the mid-80s. Gonsalves warned of this dynamic in a tweet thread on monkeypox earlier this week. “There are always people ready to use disease to stigmatize and scapegoat,” he wrote. The United Nations issued a similar warning this week saying that “lessons from the AIDS response show that stigma and blame directed at certain groups of people can rapidly undermine outbreak response.”

One current and far-fetched conspiracy theory that links homophobia with the antivax movement is that monkeypox isn’t monkeypox at all—rather, influencers claim that it’s a side effect of HIV caused by the Covid vaccines. In a lengthy Instagram story called H(!)V/pox, an anti-vaccine account called @theshinedontstop, which has 88,000 followers and has also dabbled in pro-Putin rhetoric, put forth this theory, using alternative spellings to evade disinformation algorithms. “There are many reports of people who received the c(0)^!d v*(c)(!ne, and then were diagnosed with A!D$,” the story says. (That’s not true.) “Now…they claim for the FIRST TIME EVER…their munkeepox is sexually transmitted AND being spread by gays and gay pride festivals. Feels like a disclosure of h(!)v to me.”

Other accounts have shared disinformation that may not be explicitly homophobic, but is still troubling. For example, one widely shared meme shows a sign reading “Monkeypox is a cover story for vaccine-acquired shingles. Change my mind.” Another meme showing a still from the movie Austin Powers reads, “Fear of covid is receding. Release the monkeypox!!!”

“Monkeypox is a cover story for vaccine-acquired shingles. Change my mind.”

Influencers aren’t the only ones promoting myths around monkeypox. Far-right radio personality and Trump ally Alex Jones claimed that Covid vaccines caused it. Last week, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) took an old conspiracy theory—that Bill Gates engineered Covid for profit—and simply replaced the disease. “Bill Gates is very concerned about monkeypox because this is something, apparently, he can make a lot of money off of,” she said on her Facebook Live show. Prominent antivaccine physicians have also taken up the cause. In his recent Substack newsletter, Dr. Paul Alexander, a former Trump adviser who was also an ardent supporter of the anti-vaccine trucker convoys in Canada and the United States, speculated that Covid vaccines may have left us vulnerable to other diseases. “Our immune systems may now be seriously compromised (in vaccinated persons) due to the Covid vaccine,” he wrote. “Monkeypox may be the tip.” (The idea that Covid vaccines weaken the immune system has been debunked.)

On May 20, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior who was fired from his post at the University of California-Irvine for refusing to get vaccinated against Covid, suggested in a Twitter thread to his 157,000 followers that the monkeypox virus had been intentionally released by powerful global public health authorities in order to enrich the pharmaceutical companies who make vaccines and treatments. As evidence for this theory, he cited a simulation exercise conducted last year, in which epidemiologists practiced planning a pandemic response using a hypothetical monkeypox outbreak as an example. This particular conspiracy theory has been repeated widely, including by Robert F. Kennedy’s antivaccine group Children’s Health Defense and the Covid-minimizing think tank the Brownstone Institute.  

The reality, not surprisingly, is much less exciting. Epidemiologists frequently use simulations to prepare for outbreaks—this kind of planning is a crucial public health tool. The very fact that experts included a monkeypox outbreak simulation suggests that they considered it a possibility. “While you might hear on the news that scientists are surprised by this outbreak, that’s not entirely true,” said Walsh. “We have been watching monkeypox adapt to human-to-human transmission in Africa for several decades, so it was just a matter of time before this happened.” Walsh said he was appalled by the suggestion that monkeypox was in any way related to Covid vaccines. “We are testing people,” he said,so the simple fact is we know it’s pox, not herpes or HIV.” 

Yet undramatic facts don’t seem to gain traction as easily as sweeping narratives about powerful people with nefarious motives. Social media platforms seem to be struggling to keep up with the onslaught of monkeypox content. Twitter says in its community guidelines that users may not “share false or misleading information about Covid-19 which may lead to harm.” Substack has no such policies. Neither of those companies responded to a request for comment about their policies regarding monkeypox disinformation or homophobic rhetoric. A spokesperson from Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, noted that the fact-checking organizations that it works with have been monitoring monkeypox content. Punishments for sharing such content range from demotion in the visibility algorithm to removal. The spokesperson didn’t specifically address the homophobic narratives around monkeypox, but my quick Facebook search turned up several examples of posts that called monkeypox a consequence of a “sinful” lifestyle.

It’s possible that the social media platforms simply aren’t monitoring monkeypox content as carefully for homophobia as they are for more straightforward disinformation. In his Substack post, Berenson rejected the idea that Covid vaccines cause monkeypox. “[Y]ou can go full Alex Jones and start screaming about how the DNA/AAV Covid vaccines are giving us monkeypox!” he wrote. “Do you know what happens to my blood pressure when woke morons on Twitter compare me to Alex #@$%TG$ Jones? If I stroke out, you’ll know why.” This is a tactic: By distancing himself from some of the wildest conspiracy theories, Berenson, who didn’t respond to my request for comment, makes his own homophobic take look reasonable by comparison. Throughout the pandemic, rogue scientists and other influential contrarians have leveraged their credentials to gain credibility and separate themselves from the tin-hat-wearing masses. 

The proliferation of this kind of disinformation on social media is a particular frustration for Walsh, who is watching in horror as the truth about a disease he has studied for years becomes distorted by conspiracy theorists. “It’s really disappointing that some people maliciously spread this kind of stuff, but I guess that’s their intent,” he said. “They probably know full well what they are doing.”

Images from left: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash, Radek Pestka/Unsplash, Christian Buehner/Unsplash, Daniel Schludi/Unsplash, BSIP/UIG/Getty, Martin Sanchez/Unsplash, Sushil Nash/Unsplash

UN Chief to New College Grads: Don’t Work for “Climate Wreckers”

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

The UN secretary general has told new university graduates not to take up careers with the “climate wreckers”— companies that drive the extraction of fossil fuels.

António Guterres addressed thousands of graduates at Seton Hall University in New Jersey on Tuesday. “You must be the generation that succeeds in addressing the planetary emergency of climate change,” he said. “Despite mountains of evidence of looming climate catastrophe, we still see mountains of funding for coal and fossil fuels that are killing our planet.”

“But we know investing in fossil fuels is a dead end—no amount of greenwashing or spin can change that. So we must put them on notice: Accountability is coming for those who liquidate our future.”

He added: “You hold the cards. Your talent is in demand from multinational companies and big financial institutions. You will have plenty of opportunities to choose from. My message to you is simple: Don’t work for climate wreckers. Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future.”

Guterres has become increasingly outspoken on the climate crisis in recent months, telling world leaders in April: “Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing us.”

“They are lying and the results will be catastrophic. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

He has also recently attacked companies and governments whose climate actions do not match their words: “Simply put, they are lying and the results will be catastrophic. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

The Guardian recently revealed that the 12 largest oil and gas companies were planning to spend $103 million a day to 2030 on projects that cannot go ahead if global temperature rise is to be kept well below 2C, as agreed by the world’s governments.

On Monday, a senior safety consultant quit working with Shell after 11 years, accusing the company in a public video of causing “extreme harms” to the environment. Caroline Dennett claimed Shell had a “disregard for climate change risks” and urged others in the oil and gas industry to “walk away while there’s still time.”

Dennett said she was inspired by an Extinction Rebellion protest: “When I saw news footage of Extinction Rebellion inviting anyone at Shell to jump ship and offering support through its TruthTeller project, it motivated me to take action. I hope many more can find a way to do the same.”

The TruthTeller campaign encourages employees to walk away from companies fueling the climate crisis and to anonymously disclose what they know. The TruthTeller coordinator, Zoë Blackler, said: “Employees face a stark choice: either stay where they are and watch Shell go toxic on their CVs, or exit an industry rapidly losing its social license.”

University students in the UK are increasingly joining a fossil-free careers campaign to ban fossil fuel and mining companies from recruitment events and career services. Students at the universities of OxfordEdinburghSheffield, and Sussex all backed the campaign in March and April.

The Epidemic of Mass Shootings Is Neither Inevitable Nor Unsolvable

For many years now, every horrific gun massacre has ricocheted widely with a familiar theme of outrage and surrender. On Wednesday, the day after a heavily armed, suicidal 18-year-old slaughtered 19 children and two adults at a Texas elementary school, Washington Post columnist Brian Broome published one of the more powerful versions of that narrative I’ve ever read. “Nothing happened after innocent children were slaughtered the last time, or the time before that, and nothing is going to be done now,” he wrote, citing Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Parkland.

Broome’s column articulated the enduring shame of our nation’s political stalemate and pathetic inaction on gun policy. It was piercing and poignant—and, in my view, wrong.

It’s not just that we shouldn’t resign ourselves in perpetuity to such outrage, rightful as it is. This narrative has become part of the problem itself—in some cases possibly even fueling the escalating cycle of mass shootings. That’s because it validates the recurring violence, framing it as an indefinite feature of our reality.

And mass shooters pay heed. After nearly a decade of studying these attacks and how to prevent them through the work of behavioral threat assessment, I documented extensive case evidence for my book, Trigger Points. The research shows that many perpetrators are keenly aware of media and political narratives about their actions.

They hope the public will focus on sensational coverage of their rage-filled “manifestos,” their sinister photos uploaded to social media, their ghastly livestreams. They want notoriety, and they seek justification and credibility for their acts of violence. And in the message that America will never stop these mass shootings, they find such affirmation.

“School shootings happen all the time,” remarked a troubled 17-year-old subject of one threat investigation I examined. He had become fixated on watching videos about the 2018 school massacre in Parkland, researched where he might buy a firearm, and later commented that committing such an attack could be an easy way for him to “get famous.”

The mass shooter driven by racist hatred in Buffalo, New York, cited livestreamed footage and writings posted online from a 2019 massacre as a source of inspiration, detailing his own plan to do the same, “to increase coverage and spread my beliefs.”

Mass shootings can be prevented. In fact, it happens with regularity at the hands of threat assessment teams. They work to intervene constructively with troubled people, often after someone in the orbit of those people becomes worried by their behavior and reaches out for help. The method relies to a great extent on community awareness—and its potential could grow if we do away with some big enduring myths about mass shootings.

Pro-gun politicians and leaders of the NRA have long blamed mental illness after massacres to distract from the national debate over gun laws.

One is that mental illness is fundamentally to blame for these massacres. After the horror at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde this week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pushed that argument in his public comments. Pro-gun politicians and leaders of the NRA have long used it as a tactic for distracting from the national debate over gun laws—essentially dismissing each new mass shooting as an inexplicable “evil,” as Abbott described it, and implying that responsibility for change lies squarely with the mental health field. (Never mind that Abbott just cut $211 million in April from state mental health services.)

No mass shooter, by definition, is mentally healthy. These are people with deep rage, despair and other problems, who need help in various ways. But the exploitation of mental illness in lay terms is highly misleading and counterproductive to preventing these attacks, as I wrote after the massacre in Buffalo:

The claim that mental illness produces such attacks implies that mass shooters are insane, as if they are disconnected from reality and act based on no rational thinking. This goes hand in hand with the common theme that these offenders “snap,” which suggests they commit impulsive acts of violence, bursting forth from nowhere. Both explanations are wrong.

Extensive case history shows that mass shooters don’t just suddenly break—they decide. They develop violent ideas that stem from entrenched grievances, rage, and despair. In many cases they feel justified in their actions and regard killing as the sole solution to a problem. They arm themselves and prepare to attack, choosing where and when to strike. Often this is a highly organized and methodical process.

Blaming mental illness for mass shootings inflicts a damaging stigma on the millions of people who suffer from clinical afflictions, the vast majority of whom are not violent. Extensive research shows the link between mental illness and violent behavior is small and not useful for predicting violent acts; people with diagnosable conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are in fact far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

Another major falsehood is continually reinforced through news reporting that quotes people who knew or came in contact with a shooter: “I never thought he could do something like this,” and, “No one could’ve seen this coming.” In many cases, nothing could be further from the truth. In the scores of threat investigations and mass shootings I studied, every case subject showed a mix of identifiable warning signs. These fall into eight areas:

Entrenched grievances: Shooters often stew over mistreatment or injustices, real or perceived.

Threatening communications: Signs of intent, or “leakage,” can be veiled or direct, noticeable in talk, writing or online posts.

Patterns of aggression: Acts such as domestic violence indicate a capacity to harm and correlate with risk.

Stalking behavior: Fixation and harassment are red flags that were first studied in political assassins and celebrity stalkers.

Emulation: This is the so-called copycat problem; mass shooters often signal that they identify with past attackers.

Personal deterioration: Breakdowns of routine and loss of resilience point to tendencies that can culminate in a murder-suicide.

Triggering events: A major failure in school, work or a relationship can set violence in motion.

Attack preparation: Acquiring a gun, practicing at a range and surveilling a venue are common in the days or weeks before an attack.

Many of these warning signs, we now know, were present and escalating long before Tuesday’s nightmare in Uvalde—as they were before the one in Buffalo, and before that, in the run-up to the massacre at Oxford High School in Michigan.

This is the true nature of these attacks. And the expanding knowledge of these patterns represents opportunity for threat assessment teams to intervene, before it’s too late.

Diminishing this American nightmare is going to take many different forms of action: continuing a relentless, long-term effort to strengthen our nation’s gun laws. Quashing a surge in violent political extremism. Investing in a lacking mental health care system. And building community-based violence prevention programs.

In a society with 400 million firearms that are easy to obtain, even all that may only be a start. But it will be a powerful rebuttal to the nihilism that mass shooters feed on—and to the hopelessness about this epidemic that so many Americans once again feel.

He Did Not Act Alone

“We don’t know his motive yet, but authorities believe he acted alone”…“it was a lone gunman”…“the shooter acted alone…”

No, he didn’t.

A motive will probably be assigned to him. We have studied every mass shooting since 1982. And the “motives” are usually some combination of the following: He struggled with bullying. Or self-loathing and depression. Maybe he had an axe to grind with an authority figure. Maybe he hated a certain group of people.

But whatever we learn about the Uvalde shooter, or any future ones—because there will be more—don’t say they “acted alone,” which is largely media code for “this doesn’t appear to be Islamic terrorism.” No matter the particulars, these “lone” gunmen all have scores of accomplices. Here is a wholly incomplete list of those who bear direct responsibility in this slaughter of 19 children and two teachers, and the brutality visited on those still in the hospital, all the families, and the community and country at large:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: A relentless cheerleader for gun extremism, last year he gleefully signed seven bills rolling back gun regulations—including abolishing licenses for handguns.  In the aftermath of this shooting he blamed mental health issues, a go-to tactic to distract from the gun debate, despite having cut $21 million dollars from state mental health services.

The GOP-controlled Texas statehouse, which had already passed a slew of laws that rolled back any reasonable gun restrictions—many of which they did so immediately after mass shootings, including permitless carry. 

Senator Ted Cruz, a leading recipient of gun lobby money, who now suggests the solution is forcing students and staff to enter and leave through one door. Scholars of military “kill zone” tactics and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire beg to differ.  

Senator John Cornyn, ever content to draft in behind his slightly more venal compatriot, who is making bleating noises about possible compromises he will vote against in the end.

Rupert Murdoch, for translating the El Paso, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh shooters’ manifestos into prime-time programming.

Every damn person who works for Fox News now, and really since at least 2010. Like gun manufacturers, they sell fear and grievance to a mostly white male audience. They profit off of hate. And cable companies are their accomplices.

Every politician—looking at you, Elise Stefanik—fueling “replacement theory” hate to raise money and get more Fox air time.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who won’t bring HR 8—requiring universal background checks—to an immediate vote, because, he says, people know where their senators stand, and he hopes to reach a compromise bill that can get 60 votes. Charlie Brown, Lucy, football. 

Every member of Congress who isn’t right this minute working to get additional bills to the floor to pass national red flag laws, institute waiting periods, limit high-capacity guns and clips, finally digitize ATF records, permit federal research into gun crimes—any of a dozen of common-sense laws that have overwhelming, bipartisan public support. No meaningful federal laws have been passed since 20 children and six educators were slaughtered at Sandy Hook elementary, in Newtown, Connecticut. 

Every member of Congress and every single one of their staffers who is more concerned with getting home for the holiday weekend than doing something to end the carnage. Especially after they just acted with “lightning speed” when people peacefully protested at the houses of Supreme Court justices.

The four Democratic senators (Harry Reid doesn’t count) who joined the Republicans to vote against the 2016 ­­Manchin-Toomey compromise bill on background checks. Especially Heidi Heitkamp, who, when asked about her vote on Thursday, told a reporter, “I no longer have to answer your questions.” Nice.

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who will not override the filibuster even to prevent the slaughter of school kids, shoppers, or churchgoers—even for HR 8, which is essentially the bill Manchin championed for years.

Extra points for Manchin telling reporters yesterday that this time compromise talks “feels a little different.” Which he said after Parkland. And Newtown.

And for Sinema, who said she doesn’t believe that “DC solutions are realistic here.”

Every member of Congress who voted to give gun manufacturers a liability shield in 2005. (Looking at you, Henry Cuellar!) George W Bush for signing it.

Antonin Scalia, for replacing the actual, arcane, mostly insignificant Second Amendment with an entirely invented new one that overrides seemingly everything else in American life.

The high priests of the Beltway “both sides” oracle.

The “thoughts and prayers” crew.

Gun manufacturers and their handmaidens at the NRA, which agreed to the Manchin-Toomey bill back in 2013, but then walked away once it received concessions.  

Vladimir Putin, who, together with his spies, helped bolster the NRA because he saw it as a way to sow domestic division.

Alex Jones. Seriously, fuck that guy forever. Ditto to his anonymous Bitcoin donor. And Ted Cruz for defending him.

Ted Cruz, again, for this.

Trump. Too many reasons to list. Here’s the latest.

Social media companies and streamers that drag their feet about taking down shooter’s videos and rants, and do not invest nearly enough to keep their platforms from fueling the “Columbine effect.”

Everybody pushing lockdown drills and bulletproof backpacks and arming teachers—and other reactive, largely performative measures. Active school shooter drills are shown to deeply traumatize children, and there’s little evidence that they’ve reduced the overall carnage. They certainly don’t prevent school shootings. We should be investing school and community resources in a far more robust and universal “threat assessment” plan to ID troubled individuals, support them, and dissuade them from violent acts.

Every politician and pundit saying more armed cops on campuses is the answer.  Uvalde is an utter refutation of the bogus “good guy with a gun” claim, which was only ever about increasing gun sales.

Every politician who declares they are “pro-life,” yet are wantonly indifferent to the carnage of their gun policies and positions. They’ll force you to have a child, and then lead that child to slaughter.

Everybody who is tossing their hands up and declaring that nothing will ever change. Yes, the anti-majoritarian Senate and state legislators are pushing the ideas of an extreme minority onto the rest of us, on this subject and so many others. Yes, there are millions of guns out there already. That only means we have to fight harder, and for longer. But change can come if we are willing to put in the work.

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