Change country:
Vox - All
Vox - All
Elliot Page is an unlikely trans hero. His new memoir shows why that’s important.
Elliot Page at the LACMA Art + Film Gala on November 5, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. | Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic In his book Pageboy, between all the juicy Hollywood stories, Page invites crucial empathy toward the trans experience. At first glance, you’d think Elliot Page would be the last person to have written an explosive tell-all Hollywood memoir. The 36-year-old Page, who has starred in iconic films like The X-Men series, Juno,and Inception as well as Netflix’s much-loved urban fantasy series The Umbrella Academy, has arguably built his career on a persona of mild-mannered chill. Yet Elliot Page is also queer and trans, coming out as trans in 2020, and his choice to publish a memoir during Pride month amid aggressive anti-trans actions playing out in red states across the US makes Pageboy a surprisingly bold political statement. Page may be an unlikely poster boy for trans rights, but that may be precisely what gives his story such power. Who is Elliot Page again? Originally from Canada, Page had a typical upbringing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, except for his double role as a child star. Page’s first acting job, in Pit Pony (1997), a film-turned-family-drama in which he also starred, netted him critical acclaim before he’d even turned 11, and set him on a swiftly rising career path. A decade later, after critically lauded turns in films like the 2004 dramedy Wilby Wonderful and the 2005 dark thriller Hard Candy, in which his character weaponizes her deceptive innocence to catch a child predator, Page bagged the role of Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), a part that’s since become iconic queer rep. The following year, he landed the title role in one of the most unexpectedly polarizing films of the decade: Diablo Cody’s comedy about teen pregnancy, Juno (2007). Featuring Page as the titular unwed high schooler who finds herself pregnant by her sometime boyfriend (Michael Cera), the film’s refreshingly casual take on teen pregnancy divided critics and activists across the political spectrum and ushered in a wave of odd takes. Time magazine blamed a nonexistent “Juno effect” for “glamorizing” teen pregnancy and causing a rash of pregnancies at a random high school. The film’s apparent quick rejection of abortion as an option for its protagonist led many viewers to conclude it was anti-abortion, a charge Cody is still quick to refute. In Juno, Page and Cera deftly fling classic Cody zingers at each other (“I still have your underwear.” “I still have your virginity!”) all while embodying the mortifying awkwardness of teenagerdom. Both actors built their personas around such performative normalcy; Page became known for this particular brand of low-key, world-weary innocence. In 2010, he starred as Ariadne, the architect of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, whose mix of wide-eyed wonder and deadpan eye-rolling over her own dreamscapes turns out to be the perfect grounding element the entire story needs. If Page had an identifiable public persona by the 2010s, it was arguably that of weaponized ambivalence. All of that changed in 2014, however, when Page, trembling through an instantly viral speech for the Human Rights Campaign on Valentine’s Day, came out as gay. Page spoke of the “crushing standards” Hollywood pressed upon people, and of his fight to live authentically despite social stigmas and homophobia. “Trying to create that mental picture of your life, of what on earth is going to happen to you, can crush you a little every day,” he said. His coming-out speech made international headlines and turned Page into one of the most-Googled celebrities of 2014; he subsequently filmed a series for Vice, Gaycation, in which he leveraged his new status as a queer icon to explore the queer identities and experiences of average citizens around the world. Though Page had yet to come out as trans, his 2014 coming-out speech is also full of references to Page’s trans identity. A 2015 profile of Page in the New York Times reported that Page, from an early age, had presented as transmasculine and had written a high school paper questioning the existence of a gender binary. That profile, while attempting to be definitive, also seemed to struggle to comprehend Page’s persona; writer Sam Anderson observes Page’s aura of “profound moral seriousness” but then meanders away to fixate on Page’s forehead wrinkles for an entire paragraph, concluding, “That is the essence of Ellen Page: the face like a doll; the gnarled sophistication of the forehead.” It’s a quizzical approach toward an actor who, as Anderson’s profile acknowledges and the memoir later confirms, has spent his entire career steadfastly rejecting the pressure to be more feminine, to perform the role of a feminine sex symbol. Throughout Pageboy — the title a clever reference to Page’s lifetime of androgynous presentation prior to coming out — it seems as if by merely passively rejecting such pressure, Page becomes a confrontational powder keg that provokes responses. “We get it, you’re gay!” a higher-up at his (former) agency allegedly responded when Page got the news about Gaycation. When Jordan Peterson was finally banned from Twitter, it was over, of all things, a tweet deadnaming and mocking Page. But Page, of course, is aware of all this. The memoir makes it clear that despite a career built around an appearance of anodyne waifishness, Page is savvy and streetwise about the mental and emotional toll the celluloid closet — and the process of leaving it — can take. What do we learn about Page in his memoir? Pageboy makes for raw reading, bouncing from emotion-filled personal encounters to the grim realities of Hollywood to the perils of navigating the societally enforced gender binary. Page skims over his rise to Hollywood stardom, picking up the majority of his narrative after his post-Juno success, when the pressure to conform really kicked in. He drops titillating details in the classic tradition of the scandalous Hollywood tell-all: everything from delightful asides (Hugh Jackman is a really nice guy! Page has Catherine Keener’s name tattooed on his shoulder!) to deeper ruminations on his relationships, including with his Juno co-star Olivia Thirlby and an indecisive, arguably manipulative Kate Mara, who refused to choose between Page and her then long-term boyfriend Max Minghella. Simultaneously, Page moves back and forth across time, detailing a lifetime of exploring his sexual and gender identity, and seemingly also a lifetime of encountering gender-based and queerphobic harassment and violence. Page recounts horrifying incidents, including being gay-bashed repeatedly, intensely stalked online and in person, alleged emotional abuse at the hands of his father and stepmother, and the time an unnamed A-lister, still allegedly one of the most famous men in Hollywood, harassed him repeatedly at a party and threatened to rape him to prove that being gay wasn’t real. Along the way, he battles an eating disorder, gender dysphoria, and a string of awful sexual encounters throughout his life. In these encounters he is never giving nor being asked for consent; which is to say he was raped repeatedly. He dissociates completely in such moments, but makes it clear that his passivity is a fear response. That’s not to say that the book is joyless; indeed, it’s because of scenes like this that, later on, once Page has come out and transitioned and developed more affirming relationships, his contrasting descriptions of sex are suffused with joy and delight. Pageboy is ultimately arguably a work not only of trans survival, but of trans euphoria. Though the memoir is rarely explicitly political — despite Page’s openly progressive politics, the book is focused on his personal experiences — it is an act of political activism simply by presenting the reality of queer trans identity. Lurking at the edges is the sense that Page, even at 36, has been just as disenfranchised by the escalating war on transgender rights, and the use of trans people as a target in the culture war, as every other vulnerable trans kid. Witness his heartbreaking description of his estrangement from his father. “To be frank, it is hard to imagine a relationship again,” he writes, noting that his father and stepmother “support those with massive platforms who have attacked and ridiculed me on a global scale.” He goes on to report that after Elon Musk allowed Peterson to rejoin Twitter, his father “liked” Peterson’s first return tweet, which referenced his being “canceled” over Page. “I have no clue what my father thinks of his son at this point,” Page writes. “Regardless of everything before, it’s painful to think that someone who parented you could support those who deny your very existence.” This all makes for heady reading, but it’s already made an impact: On June 6, the day of the memoir’s release, trolls on Twitter trended his name alongside disgraced actor Jussie Smollett, who famously staged a gay-bashing incident, as a way of attempting to discredit one of Page’s more powerful (and by no means isolated) descriptions of being verbally assaulted and threatened with violence while walking down Sunset Boulevard in early 2022. Yet the frothing anger displayed online at Page’s story just served to uphold the veracity of his account — which was, again, one of many that Page experiences throughout the memoir, underscoring just how normalized this violence is for so many queer and trans people just living their lives. That may be the key to understanding Page himself. Beyond the wave of aggressive anti-trans legislation trans people are facing around the country, there’s a broader push to question the validity of trans identity — to challenge the idea that trans people are even real. And while pop culture has a number of prominent trans women who visibly represent transfeminity to the public — Laverne Cox, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Caitlyn Jenner, and Janet Mock, for example — there are far fewer examples of celebrity trans men to look to. So it matters that our most famous transmasc celebrity, Elliot Page, is also an actor who’s arguably always been known for his authenticity. Long before he came out as trans, he performed his trans identity in ways that couldn’t be hidden, in ways that sent cisgender writers scrambling to impose traditionalist gender readings on him. At one point, E! Online published a series of awful, since-deleted pieces questioning why Page dressed like a “hobo” instead of showing off his “petite beauty.” No matter where you are on the gender spectrum, the fact Page has continued to be simply himself in the face of such ridiculous standards makes him universally relatable. And a universally relatable trans celebrity may be exactly what we need right now.
Surprise! The Supreme Court just handed down a significant victory for voting rights
Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch attend the State of the Union address on February 5, 2019. | Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images The Court’s new voting rights decision is one of the most reassuring opinions it’s handed down in years. The Supreme Court did something genuinely shocking on Thursday. It handed down a 5-4 decision in Allen v. Milligan that preserves longstanding safeguards against racism in US elections, strikes down a gerrymandered congressional map in Alabama, and all but assures that Democrats will gain at least one congressional seat in the next election from that state. Indeed, Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion for the Supreme Court repeatedly chastises Alabama’s lawyers for their aggressive efforts to rewrite longstanding law in order to render much of what remains of the Voting Rights Act an empty husk. As Roberts writes in a particularly pointed swipe at those lawyers, “the heart of these cases is not about the law as it exists. It is about Alabama’s attempt to remake our [Voting Rights Act] jurisprudence anew.” Roberts’s opinion was joined in full by all three of the liberal justices, and was joined almost entirely in full by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Of course, the idea that a court should follow precedent isn’t supposed to be controversial — indeed, it’s supposed to be highly unusual for a court to turn its back on one of its own precedents. But this is the Roberts Court we are talking about here, a Court that, especially after former President Donald Trump remade its membership, has been extraordinarily willing to toss out seminal precedents — and to dismantle the Voting Rights Act. In Shelby County v. Holder(2013), for example, the Court simply made up a new constitutional principle — the so-called “‘fundamental principle of equal sovereignty’ among the States” — and relied on this newly fabricated idea to neutralize the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racist election practices to “preclear” any new election laws with federal officials. Similarly, in Brnovich v. DNC (2021), the Court invented a slew of additional limits on the Act that appear nowhere in the law’s text, such as a presumption that voting restrictions that were commonplace in 1982 are lawful. Given this history, when this Voting Rights Act concerning Alabama’s congressional maps came onto the Court’s docket, it was reasonable to expect the justices to apply similarly results-driven reasoning — inventing new limits on voting rights at will, without any regard to precedent or statutory or constitutional text. And yet, Roberts’s opinion in Milligan is as much a celebration of stare decisis, the principle that courts should be reluctant to discard precedent, as it is a rebuke to Alabama’s attempt to effectively legalize racial gerrymandering. It is also the current Court’s first suggestion that its crusade against the Voting Rights Act may have limits. What was at stake in Milligan? Milligan involved a racially gerrymandered congressional map in Alabama, which gave Black voters a majority in just one of the state’s seven districts. As a practical matter, that meant that only 14 percent of the state’s delegation to the US House of Representatives would be chosen by Black voters, even though African Americans make up about 27 percent of the state’s population. Several Alabama voters, including a state senator, challenged this law, arguing it violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids states from enacting an election law that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Last year, a three-judge panel that included two Trump appointees agreed, releasing a 225-page opinion explaining why, under the framework the Supreme Court laid out in Thornburg v. Gingles (1986), this Alabama map could not stand. Indeed, the lower court found that Milligan involved such a clear-cut violation of the Voting Rights Act that “we do not regard the question whether the Milligan plaintiffs are substantially likely to prevail on the merits of their [Voting Rights Act] claim as a close one.” As Roberts explains in his Milligan opinion, Gingles requires voting rights plaintiffs to clear several hurdles before their case can proceed. Plaintiffs seeking an additional Black majority district, for example, must show that there are enough Black voters, living in a sufficiently geographically “compact” area, that such a district could plausibly be drawn. They must also show that these voters are “politically cohesive,” meaning that they tend to vote together for the same candidates, and that the state’s white voters also tend to vote “sufficiently as a bloc to enable it ... to defeat the [Black voters’] preferred candidate.” And, even if they clear these bars, a voting rights plaintiff can only prevail if a court determines that a myriad of other factors, such as “the extent of any history of official discrimination in the state,” indicate that the political process in the state is not “equally open” to voters of color. Without delving too deep into the weeds of the redistricting process in Alabama, suffice it to say that Roberts seems to agree with the lower court’s conclusion that these plaintiffs meet these conditions, and that this is not a close case. The lower court’s factual determinations that Alabama’s redistricting process violated the various tests laid out in Gingles “have gone unchallenged by Alabama,” Roberts writes, adding that the lower court “faithfully applied our precedents.” Indeed, Alabama’s litigation strategy in this case consisted largely of dreaming up new restrictions that the Court could impose on plaintiffs alleging racial gerrymandering, many of which would have made it virtually impossible for such plaintiffs to prevail. Current law, for example, requires plaintiffs seeking an additional majority Black district to submit sample maps which prove that it is possible to draw such a district — after all, there is no point to moving forward with a voting rights lawsuit if it is literally impossible for a court to give the plaintiffs the relief that they seek. The Milligan plaintiffs submitted several such maps. US District Court for the Northern District of Alabama Four maps produced by mathematician Moon Duchin show how Black-majority congressional districts could be drawn in Alabama. Alabama, however, argued that, when drawing these sample maps, a voting rights plaintiff cannot pay too much attention to race. “If Gingles is to serve any gatekeeping role, race cannot predominate in the districts a plaintiff proposes to satisfy that precondition,” the state’s lawyers claimed. But this proposed rule makes absolutely no sense, and seems designed to prevent any racial gerrymandering plaintiff from ever prevailing in court. Again, the purpose of these sample maps is to prove that it is possible to draw two majority Black districts in the state of Alabama. How on earth is a mapmaker supposed to complete this task without paying close attention to race? In any event, Roberts rejects this and similar attempts to impose arbitrary barriers on voting rights plaintiffs. Alabama’s proposed tests, he writes, run “headlong into our precedent,” adding that the purpose of the sample maps is merely to demonstrate that “it is possible that the State’s map has a disparate effect on account of race,” and that other parts of the Gingles framework “determine whether that possibility is reality.” That said, Roberts’s opinion does emphasize one important limit on racial gerrymandering suits — albeit a limit that derives from the Court’s previous decisions. A voting rights plaintiff may not demand that a state draw misshapen districts, which pull together voters of color from disparate communities throughout the state, in order to achieve an additional majority-minority district. To prevail, such a plaintiff must show that they can achieve their goal using reasonably compact districts that comport with “traditional districting criteria” such as keeping culturally similar communities together in the same district. But, as Roberts writes, the Milligan plaintiffs’ proposed maps were not misshapen, and they “satisfied other traditional districting criteria.“ They “contained equal populations, were contiguous, and respected existing political subdivisions, such as counties, cities, and towns.” These plaintiffs, in other words, did exactly what Gingles requires them to do. And a majority of the justices were not in the mood to blow up that precedent. Now, Alabama will have to redraw its maps to ensure that the state has a second majority Black district. So how optimistic should supporters of liberal democracy feel after this decision? Though Roberts’s opinion does not repudiate past attacks on voting rights, such as Shelby County or Brnovich, it does provide a bit of an explanation for why his Court has recently been reluctant to favor Voting Rights Act plaintiffs. He effectively claims that these cases are now less likely to prevail than they were in, say, the 1970s, because America is less racially segregated than it used to be. Recall that Gingles requires racial gerrymandering plaintiffs to prove that voters of color live together in a compact enough geographic area that it is possible to draw additional majority-minority districts. As Roberts writes, this means that “as residential segregation decreases ... satisfying traditional districting criteria such as the compactness requirement ‘becomes more difficult.’” Indeed, Roberts offers this as an optimistic explanation for why “since 2010, plaintiffs nationwide have apparently succeeded in fewer than ten” cases challenging a racial gerrymander under the Voting Rights Act. Even if you take this explanation at face value, it does not explain most of the Court’s recent attacks on the Voting Rights Act. Residential desegregation did not rewrite the Constitution to create a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” that appears nowhere in that document. It also did not create Brnovich’s completely fabricated proposition that voting restrictions that were common in 1982 are presumptively legal. But the tone of Roberts’s Milligan decision is also markedly different than the Court’s other recent Voting Rights Act cases. And its repeated emphasis on the fact that Alabama’s proposed rules would require “abandoning” longstanding precedent and “overruling the interpretation of [the Voting Rights Act]’ as set out in nearly a dozen of our cases” suggests that precedent will still play some role in the Court’s voting rights decisions. Milligan should also allay some fears that Supreme Court litigation is now a free-for-all where Republican lawyers can seek virtually any outcome they desire. There’s also one more aspect of Roberts’s opinion worth noting. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to the Voting Rights Act, albeit over considerable protest within his administration, which prohibited any state election law that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” This “results” test means that a state law may be struck down if it has negative effects on voters of color, even if the law was not written with racist intent. One of the most vocal opponents of this expansion of the Voting Rights Act was a young Justice Department lawyer named John Roberts. As voting rights journalist Ari Berman writes, “Roberts wrote upwards of 25 memos opposing an effects test for Section 2.” He “drafted talking points, speeches and op-eds for” senior Justice Department officials opposing the amendment, and “prepared administration officials for their testimony before the Senate; attended weekly strategy sessions; and worked closely with like-minded senators on Capitol Hill.” Nor did Roberts abandon this approach after joining the Supreme Court. Indeed, as chief justice, Roberts has at times suggested that any civil rights law that allows plaintiffs to prevail if they can show a disparate racial effect is unconstitutional. On Thursday, Roberts finally hung up an ax he has ground for over four decades — his opinion seems to accept that the “hard-fought compromise that Congress struck” in 1982, which Roberts opposed so vociferously, is legitimate. And he did so in an opinion that bolsters longstanding voting rights laws. And that will, at least in the short term, benefit the Democratic Party. It remains to be seen how the Court will handle future voting rights disputes, including an alarmingly high-stakes case before the Court this very term. But, as someone who has watched the Supreme Court’s voting rights decisions with alarm for more than a decade, my blood pressure dropped considerably when I read the Milligan decision. We now know that there are attacks on the Voting Rights Act that even this Supreme Court will not embrace.
How $900,000 in direct cash giving was stolen from the poorest of the poor
A displaced Congolese listens with others for their names called out, on November 24, 2012, in Mugunga, during a food distribution exercise conducted by humanitarian agencies. | Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images Why openness about fraud — and a plan to fix it — is key to more effective philanthropy. GiveDirectly is a charity that we’ve written about a lot here at Future Perfect. Their project is, on the surface, incredibly simple: send cash straight to the poorest people in the world, so they can spend it on whatever they need. The big idea is that cash has far less overhead than other forms of philanthropy, can be used for almost anything, and respects the recipients, who know better than anyone else what they need. GiveDirectly started only a decade ago, but it’s grown into a major force in international aid. Not only has it moved hundreds of millions of dollars in cash transfers to the global poor every year, but it has also funded large-scale randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of cash transfers, growing the evidence about where they help and how they can (and can’t) change people’s lives. This week, GiveDirectly is coming forward about another, less-discussed piece of the global aid picture: fraud and theft. In a detailed report released earlier this week, they explain how nearly a million dollars was stolen in 2022 from GiveDirectly aid recipients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). That’s less than 1 percent of the money GiveDirectly moved last year, but it has had an enormous impact on the intended recipients in the DRC, where more than half the population lives on less than $2.15 a day, and has prompted some major organizational policy changes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The report sheds some light on an issue that almost every aid organization faces — but that no one wants to talk about. The worry is that if you tell your donors about theft and fraud that occurs on your watch, your donors will give to other organizations that don’t talk openly about these issues. But they’re issues that every organization trying to transfer money or any other kind of aid at scale faces — and only by talking openly about theft can organizations design better procedures to prevent it. “You end up in a situation where no one shares” the details of theft and fraud cases, Tyler Hall, the communications director for GiveDirectly, told me. “It’s bad for the recipient because if we’re not able to actively talk about this, how to safely deliver money in really difficult contexts, we’re not going to get better at doing this.” So let’s dig into fraud: how it happens, how it gets caught, and whether it undermines the case for helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. One-off versus systematic aid theft An “ordinary” case of attempted aid fraud, Hall told me, is a one-off, small-scale incident: “Usually we’re finding somebody got manipulated by a family member or a local money agent lied about what percentage they take off the top.” That’s a problem GiveDirectly attempts to tackle, because if recipients are exploited, then they’re not benefiting from the aid. GiveDirectly does information campaigns about how much money agents are allowed to charge in fees, warning everyone not to pay more than what is permitted. They tell recipients they do not have to share their money with community leaders or aid workers or anyone else who might claim they are owed some. They estimate some money is still lost to theft and fraud, but it’s a very small percentage of the overall money successfully moved. (GiveDirectly estimates its annual loss from fraud — even including this event — at 1 percent or less.) In some ways, this is the cost of doing philanthropy. What the GiveDirectly team discovered in January of this year, though, was something very different from that. To understand it, you have to know a little about how GiveDirectly verifies that the money it donates makes it to where it was meant to go. The process, GiveDirectly wrote in a blog post released this Monday, involves “separate census, registration, pre-pay audit, post-pay audit, and follow-up call” steps. Different groups of people are responsible for getting a census of the village, registering recipients for payments, auditing those registrations, checking that those recipients got money, and following up with the recipients later. That way, if there’s a thief involved at any step, it’ll be quickly caught at the next step. In most countries, the staff members who conduct registration of recipients help those recipients get an account with an independent money agent, but due to the ongoing war in the DRC, GiveDirectly waived that step, and allowed registration of recipients directly with GiveDirectly’s enrollment team. “We now know,” GiveDirectly’s new blog post reveals, “that while enrolling villages in South Kivu, some staff conspired to register payment SIMs to the recipients’ names (per the special exception granted), pocket those registered SIMs, and put different SIMs in recipients’ phones. ... Fraud checks are not just done by the enrollment team, but are further validated during visits from a completely separate internal audit team and follow-ups from our call-center, all of which are supported by our back office team. In this case, conspirators recruited local staff in every layer of this system in order to suppress evidence of the fraud, including complaints from families who had not received their promised funds. Further still, they conspired with third-party mobile money agents to transfer funds from these stolen SIMs.” GiveDirectly’s system of separated teams was meant to serve as a check against theft: if anyone did attempt theft, it’d be caught immediately by the audit team. But because the conspirators had arranged to work in all of those offices, they were able to get away with the fraud for about five months, before it was caught in January 2023. About $900,000 was lost, and 1,700 families in need were stolen from. GiveDirectly has paused operations in the DRC while they adjust their procedures. A path to fixing fraud Obviously, an incident like this is a tragedy on multiple levels. First, thousands of families in desperate poverty are going hungry because the money that was promised to them was stolen. (GiveDirectly is trying to ensure they eventually receive the promised funds.) Second, theft, as rare as it might be, undermines donors’ confidence. And it’s simply an extraordinary betrayal to learn that your own aid staff was signing recipients up for aid and then pocketing the money. I’m sad and angry that this happened. I’m also deeply grateful that GiveDirectly is being so open about it. (They actually reached out to ask if I’d be willing to write about this for a larger audience.) People sometimes shoplift from stores, but no one thinks that undermines the case for having stores. Addressing theft is a crucial priority for doing cash transfers — without good procedures, theft would certainly be more widespread — but a single instance of theft doesn’t, to my mind, change the importance of getting aid to the people who need it most. And by describing exactly how the aid was stolen, GiveDirectly has risked its own reputation to help every other nonprofit out there that might have similar vulnerabilities, and make it easier for everyone to design procedures that even organized thieves can’t beat. Part of getting charity right is admitting when you got it wrong. It’s only with accountability and transparency that we can build systems that truly work to help the people who need it most. And so, while I’m appalled that this happened, I’m happy that we’re able to report on it. I think that’s the first step toward a world where it doesn’tkeep happening, and where it’s possible to move huge sums of money in a transparent way. A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!
8 h
Now might be a good time to consider quitting crypto
The Securities and Exchange Commission unveiled a slew of charges this week against two large, popular cryptocurrency exchanges, Coinbase and Binance. | Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images What the SEC’s lawsuits against Binance and Coinbase mean for the future of cryptocurrencies — and for you. For a long time, the crypto industry has been a Wild West with few regulations and laws governing it — a fact that many crypto enthusiasts saw as a feature, not a bug. Unlike registered securities — as in, stocks — cryptocurrencies and crypto exchanges didn’t have to disclose much of anything to customers, and the list of lies and frauds rocking the industry has continued to pile up. That freewheeling era now appears to be coming to an end. This week, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a federal agency that regulates securities and protects investors, filed lawsuits against Binance and Coinbase, two of the world’s biggest crypto exchanges, on which investors buy and trade a large offering of cryptocurrencies. The SEC’s main allegation against Coinbase is that it’s running an unregistered securities exchange — like if the Nasdaq independently operated without any regulatory oversight. Binance faces the same charge, as well as additional accusations that it appropriated billions of dollars in customers’ funds for its CEO’s trading firm, misled its customers, lied to regulators, and more. Binance has about 90 million users, according to CoinMarketCap, while Coinbase reported that it had 110 million verified users as of 2022. That the agency is going after such behemoths — after bringing cases against the most egregious bad actors, such as Sam Bankman-Fried, as well as celebrity crypto endorsers like Kim Kardashian (who paid a $1.26 million fine), Lindsay Lohan, and Jake Paul — sends a clear message. It’s no longer calling out a few rotten apples; it’s saying the whole enterprise needs to be scrutinized under a regulatory lens. (Disclosure: This August, Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect a grant for a 2023 reporting project. That project is now on pause.) At their core, the SEC’s lawsuits against the two companies are the most decisive actions to date in the prolonged battle to settle what cryptocurrencies and crypto exchanges even are. Are they being used as digital money, or is crypto — whether it’s ethereum, tether, or cardano — like a share of a company where investors are speculating on making a profit as “share” prices go up? The latest legal action represents an existential threat to the entire industry. So, whether you have $20 or $200,000 in assets on a crypto exchange, should you be worried? “It’s a very scary situation for any customer,” says John Reed Stark, a former SEC enforcement attorney. “I think anyone who has crypto on any exchange should take it off of that exchange immediately. Period, end of story.” In a lengthy statement, Binance denied the SEC’s allegations and claimed that its litigation would “undermine America’s role as a global hub for financial innovation and leadership.” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong tweeted similarly that the approach of regulating crypto through enforcement was “harming America.” In a statement to Vox’s Sara Morrison, Coinbase’s chief legal officer and general counsel Paul Grewal bemoaned what he called the SEC’s “enforcement-only approach” and called for clarity in the agency’s rules. In Stark’s view, chances are good that the SEC will prevail. “The SEC has brought close to 150 cases in the area of crypto,” says Stark. While many of those cases are still pending, the SEC’s track record so far has been extremely strong. If the latest lawsuits stand in court, the exchanges will have to become compliant under the SEC’s regulatory rules — and if not, they could shut down in the US. It’s possible that Binance and Coinbase (and other exchanges) could cease operations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean customers would be unable to get their money out. There would likely be an orderly wind-down of operations, according to crypto researcher and critic Molly White, who writes about the scandals and scams within the cryptocurrency industry on her site Web3 Is Going Just Great. Below, we’ve provided the answers to a few more questions you might have about the current crypto turmoil, including what it means for you. What is the SEC upset about? There are clear reasons for individual crypto investors to be concerned: The SEC has asked for an emergency order from the court to freeze Binance US’s assets. According to Stark, this move suggests that the SEC has strong evidence of wrongdoing and believes it will win its case. It also shows that the agency believes investor funds might be at risk. There’s a precedent for this fear: As you may remember, another crypto exchange, FTX, found it difficult to return customers’ money because, as bankruptcy proceedings have revealed, the firm’s financial records are such a jumbled mess that it’s hard to account for what’s missing and what has possibly been stolen. The SEC’s take on crypto exchanges is clear: They are flouting the law as unregistered stock exchanges. Even Binance executives knew it, the SEC’s complaint argues: Binance’s former chief compliance officer admitted once that the company was “operating as a fking unlicensed securities exchange in the USA bro.” The complaint against US-based Coinbase, which came a day after the lawsuit against Binance, alleges that it’s an unregistered securities exchange that’s putting customers at risk without proper SEC-required disclosures and protections — a charge that would apply to any crypto exchange. The case against Binance, which operates internationally but has a separate US arm, goes deeper, laying out alleged deceptions. The 13 charges filed against the exchange and its CEO, Changpeng Zhao, include allegations that it misused and commingled its customers’ funds — accusations not dissimilar to those made against FTX and its former CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried (who is also facing criminal charges). The agency is also accusing a separate trading firm owned by Zhao of artificially inflating the volume of crypto being traded on Binance US, an illegal market manipulation tactic called wash trading. SEC chair Gary Gensler said in a press release that Zhao and his company had “engaged in an extensive web of deception, conflicts of interest, lack of disclosure, and calculated evasion of the law.” The SEC’s charges against Binance follow a Commodities Futures Trading Commission lawsuit filed earlier this year. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images Securities and Exchange Commission chair Gary Gensler, pictured testifying before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee in 2022, has made clear his intention to bring crypto under the agency’s regulatory control, insisting the tokens are securities. Why is the crackdown happening now? Crypto exchanges have been around for a while. So, why now? “It’s kind of a strategic time for the SEC to take these actions, with the recent-ish downfall of FTX, and Celsius and Voyager — these very high-profile collapses,” says White. Coinbase received a notice from the SEC in March that all but declared the agency’s intention to sue. A lot of the crypto hype also has died down, particularly after the high-octane explosion of FTX last fall, which helped cement public wariness around the lack of transparency and risk management on exchanges. The SEC also recently received firm backing from the Biden administration, which has signaled its intention to work with agencies on regulating crypto. “I also think that the SEC are getting to a stage where they really need to take some major action that would support the things that they’ve been saying more broadly about the crypto industry,” White continued. Gensler has been making clear that he believes that most cryptocurrencies are securities since his appointment in 2021. In addition to its high-profile lawsuits, the SEC has been beefing up its crypto enforcement unit and its budget; in fiscal year 2021, the agency requested a $1.9 billion budget from Congress. For fiscal year 2024, it’s asking for $2.4 billion. What does this mean for people who have money in these exchanges? As Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine quipped in Tuesday’s column, “If you are trading crypto, you simply cannot be too squeamish about strict adherence to US securities law.” Given the SEC’s signaled intent to aggressively get crypto in line and under its authority, it’s reasonable that investors with a great deal of money in crypto exchanges are spooked. The agency’s complaints call out more than a dozen specific cryptocurrencies that it claims are being sold and offered as securities on Binance and Coinbase, including a popular token called Solana. Some anxiety is apparent: The share price of Coinbase, a publicly traded company listed on the Nasdaq, initially fell by almost 20 percent according to Yahoo Finance, though it has since rallied. On June 6, the day after the SEC announced its lawsuit against Binance and the day it announced its separate lawsuit against Coinbase, more than $700 million was withdrawn from Binance and about $600 million was withdrawn from Coinbase, according to cryptocurrency news site CoinDesk, which broke the story that culminated in FTX’s downfall. The situation right now doesn’t yet compare to the panic last winter, when investors withdrew as much as $3 billion from Binance over a 24-hour period in the aftermath of Bankman-Fried’s arrest. (Binance CEO Zhao was the catalyst for a massive withdrawal of funds from Bankman-Fried’s exchange, FTX, eventually leading to the exchange’s implosion and bankruptcy.) Stark says the comparatively muted response among investors is both surprising and not. When it comes to any kind of investing, the sound financial advice is to be careful of risk and do your due diligence. Yet “due diligence” is almost impossible with crypto, precisely because it’s unregulated. At the same time, crypto enthusiasts tend to be a group that distrusts government regulation; a common narrative among the crypto crowd is that decentralized, alternative digital currencies are actually safer than the US dollar because power and authority aren’t concentrated in just a few institutions. White says that whether someone should take their money out depends on whether they believe there’s going to be a bank run that collapses the entire exchange, a la FTX. But FTX collapsed because it didn’t have enough cash on hand for the billions in withdrawals that investors suddenly were trying to make — it was in significant debt, didn’t have enough money in reserves, and Bankman-Fried allegedly had been freely using customers’ funds at his personal trading firm. Binance, for its part, has said that all of its assets are fully backed; during last December’s onslaught, in which $1.9 billion in funds were withdrawn, a company spokesperson said that it had “more than enough funds” to process withdrawals. As a public company, Coinbase reports audited quarterly financial statements showing how much money they have in reserves. “I feel like if there was a major risk of a quote-unquote bank run happening, we sort of would have seen it by now,” White says. White notes that there’s always a risk with unregulated crypto exchanges that aren’t required to disclose much of anything and aren’t required to have risk management controls in place. That is, after all, the thrust of why the SEC is going after them. “I think a lot of people within and outside of the cryptocurrency industry will argue that keeping cryptocurrency assets on exchanges is not necessarily the best idea to begin with,” White says. The general advice is to keep your crypto in an offline storage device that you have direct access to. But for avid crypto traders, the point is to buy and sell quickly — to trade, not just leave crypto in an offline “wallet.” And the risk and lack of transparency in crypto exchanges is probably no surprise to them, either. “I think that anyone who is shocked by [what Binance is being accused of] probably hasn’t been paying that much attention,” White says. But plenty of lay investors have money in Coinbase and other exchanges, too, and the reality is that Coinbase and every other crypto exchange all lack investor protections — there are no audits or inspections from the SEC, no insurance, and no licensure requirements of people involved in crypto, says Stark. What’s going to happen to cryptocurrency now? The outcome of the SEC’s complaints could take years to litigate, according to Ciamac Moallemi, a business professor at Columbia University. “I think one data point is to look at the accusations against Ripple,” he says. The SEC filed a complaint accusing the digital payment network of selling unregistered securities back in December 2020. That case is still pending. “Assuming that these complaints stand up in court, I don’t think that there’s a scenario in which Coinbase or Binance — particularly Binance — become compliant,” White says. “The business model of cryptocurrency in general and cryptocurrency platforms really relies on not abiding by the regulations that are in place.” Their business model is “regulatory arbitrage”: using loopholes or structuring their companies in countries with friendly crypto regulations. FTX, for example, was headquartered in the Bahamas. One possible scenario here is that the lawsuits could culminate in Binance ceasing operations in the US, and Coinbase shutting down entirely. Perhaps what should worry crypto traders most of all is just how much of the crypto and Web3 hype has died down, a potential sign that the boom days are over. The crypto whales have made their billions and are off to the next big thing, while the average crypto trader is left holding the bag. In November 2021, the crypto industry’s market cap reached $3 trillion. Its market cap is now around $1.1 trillion, according to CoinMarketCap. “Every private equity firm is moving on — obviously to the area of artificial intelligence,” says Stark. “And they’re not coming back.”
9 h
Why is eastern Canada on fire — and when will the smoke clear?
A view of the Williamsburg Bridge from Domino Park in Brooklyn, New York, on June 7. | Courtesy of Natalie Kelapire 4 basic questions about Canada’s wildfires, answered. East Coasters finally understand what it’s like to live in California. Earlier this week, a giant cloud of wildfire smoke from Canada wafted into New York City, Boston, and other eastern metropolises, engulfing skylines and putting millions of people at risk from air pollution. Tuesday evening, NYC had the worst air quality of any major city in the world. New York State Mesonet/University at Albany It’s not only large northeastern cities that are smothered in smoke. States as far west as Minnesota and as far south as South Carolina have watched their air quality plummet, in some cases reaching record levels of pollution. It’s likely one of the worst wildfire smoke events in the last two decades in North America. Across the eastern seaboard, most of the smoke comes from forest fires in Quebec, a Canadian province in the far east that borders Maine. More than 140 fires were burning in the region as of Wednesday afternoon, most of which were not contained. This situation is both frightening and usual. While Canada is, on the whole, prone to wildfires, the fires usually aren’t this severe in the east — and especially not so early in the year. Plus, weather patterns have to be just right to bring the smoke hundreds of miles south into the US. One big question now is whether these wildfires and the conditions they’re currently causing could become more common in the years ahead as the planet warms. 1) Why is eastern Canada burning? The summer often brings severe wildfires to western Canada, especially as climate change continues to dry out vegetation and heat up the land. 2021 was a particularly devastating year, with blazes destroying entire towns. Provinces in the east — including Quebec and Nova Scotia — are somewhat more safeguarded from fires, or at least big ones. Air coming off the North Atlantic Ocean typically keeps the region humid and cooler, making it less likely to burn, per Reuters. The forests out east also tend to be less flammable, Reuters notes. Unlike western forests, which are dominated by fire-prone evergreens, eastern forests also have broadleaf trees, which are less flammable (their branches start higher off the ground and their leaves contain more moisture). CIRA/NOAA via AP A satellite image shows smoke drifting south from wildfires burning in Quebec (on the right) and Ontario (on the left) on June 7. Still, under the right conditions, eastern forests can burn, too. This spring brought the right conditions across parts of the east — namely, low humidity and rainfall, and lots of heat. Between March and May, for example, Nova Scotia’s capital, Halifax, received only about a third of its average rainfall. And when forests are dry, they ignite more easily. “What’s unique about this year is that the forests are so dry that the fires are many times larger than they normally are,” Matthew Hurteau, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico, told Vox’s Rachel DuRose. Still, there needs to be a source of ignition. For the fires out east, that was likely a combination of lightning strikes and people, such as campers who didn’t put out their campfires (they’re both pretty typical sources of wildfires). 2) When will the smoke disappear and the fires stop? The reason there’s so much smoke leaking south into the US is, in a word, weather. Wind is pushing smoke south from Quebec and parts of Ontario and into a region of low pressure that is then flinging it toward the East Coast. Accordingly, it will take a change in weather to bring relief to smoke-smothered cities — though don’t expect that in the immediate term. Meteorologists suggest that in places like New York City, the air quality will continue to be poor — or even worsen — Wednesday night and into Thursday. Changes in wind patterns and potential rain could, however, bring relief to much of the East Coast this weekend and early next week. Very thick plume of smoke has moved over New York City, turning the sky orange. This will continue progressing southeast through the afternoon toward southeast Pennsylvania, probably reaching the DC area tonight.Read more:— Capital Weather Gang (@capitalweather) June 7, 2023 Longer term, things look a bit more dire, especially for regions closer to the blazes. Forecasters predict Canada will face dry and, in some places, warmer-than-average conditions this summer, so the recipe for wildfires could persist for months. As long as there’s a risk of fire, there’s a risk of far-ranging smoke. 3) Is wildfire smoke really that dangerous? Yes, very much so, especially for people who already have lung or heart conditions, people who are pregnant, and children. Here’s how Vox’s resident physician and health reporter, Keren Landman, put it: Breathing polluted air affects the body in a few different ways. Larger pieces of particulate matter — tiny particles of soot and dust — can irritate the linings of people’s airways in their noses, mouths, throats, and lungs. And smaller bits, along with toxic gases and molecules called volatile organic compounds, can sneak from the lungs into the bloodstream, where they can travel to other organs and cause a wide range of short- and long-term problems. You can find her full story on the health risks of inhaling smoke here. People who live in large cities like New York and Boston are already exposed to sources of air pollution including car exhaust. Research suggests that wildfire smoke can be worse — up to 10 times more harmful than exhaust, for example. Thankfully, there are pretty easy ways to avoid dangerous exposure, as my colleague Rebecca Leber writes: Stay indoors when you can, wear an N95 mask when you can’t, and pay attention to outdoor air quality forecasts the same way you do the weather. 4) Are smoky skies the new normal for East Coasters and the upper Midwest? The world is heating up due to climate change, and warm air can suck moisture out of trees and other plants, making them more flammable. As a result, warming is making fire seasons in Canada, the US, and elsewhere, longer and more severe. Wildfires are now burning larger areas, compared to past decades. “As the atmosphere warms, the ability to suck moisture out of the fuel [trees and other vegetation] increases almost exponentially,” said Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire professor at the University of Alberta. “So unless we get more rain to compensate for that drying effect, our fields are going to be drier. Most of the models of future fire seasons for Canada look like no change in precipitation or even drier.” Communications Nova Scotia /The Canadian Press via AP Firefighters spray water on a forest fire in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, on June 1, 2023. That doesn’t mean that the eastern US will be engulfed in smoke every summer — again, the wind patterns have to be just so — but it does make such a frightening event more likely. What cities on the East Coast are seeing is very much a warning sign of what climate change can bring. Rachel DuRose contributed reporting to this story.
Smoky air puts everyone at risk — but it’s worse for some
Smoke from wildfires in Canada has blanketed New York City, raising the alarm for those at risk from air pollution. | Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Getty Images From burning eyes to asthma attacks: Who’s at highest risk from air pollution? And when should you seek care? Wildfires are tearing through the forests of eastern Canada, and over the past few days, their smoke has drifted into much of the airspace in the northeastern US. Almost everyone spending time outdoors has been sensing the change in air quality in their eyes and airways, and it’s a big strain on health. “Particles, gases, volatile organic compounds in the air can cause inflammation in everyone,” said Daniel Croft, a pulmonologist and air quality researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center in upstate New York. “This is a health risk for all people.” (Michael Kamali, who directs emergency medicine at the medical center, said in a press conference that there has already been an uptick in visits to urgent care centers and emergency rooms.) As with any health risk, the threat is worse for some than for others — at least, in the short term. Smoky air is more likely to trigger acute and potentially life-threatening symptoms in people with lung and heart conditions. And certain people are likelier to breathe high doses of polluted air, making them more vulnerable to its effects. These higher-risk groups might be the first to develop symptoms due to air pollution. With wildfire smoke now affecting parts of the world not used to seeing it, it’s worth knowing who’s at highest risk for acute symptoms, how to recognize red flags, and how to keep yourself safe. Here’s what you need to know. Who’s most likely to develop acute symptoms due to wildfire smoke? Breathing polluted air affects the body in a few different ways. Larger pieces of particulate matter — tiny particles of soot and dust — can irritate the linings of people’s airways in their noses, mouths, throats, and lungs. And smaller bits, along with toxic gases and molecules called volatile organic compounds, can sneak from the lungs into the bloodstream, where they can travel to other organs and cause a wide range of short- and long-term problems. Some people are more likely than others to develop symptoms in the minutes to hours following smoke exposure, said Croft. At the top of the list are those with chronic lung diseases that cause their airways to react more strongly when they’re exposed to irritants, or who have less lung capacity to compensate for episodes of lung irritation. This includes people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, often known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis). People with heart disease are also at higher risk, as the toxins in air pollution can trigger heart attacks or stroke. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, older people, whose immune systems are less well equipped to deal with airway irritation, are also more likely to experience symptoms even if they have healthy hearts and lungs. Children are more likely to develop symptoms because they often spend a lot of time playing outside — and because their proportions are different from adults, they inhale more air per pound of body weight than big people do. And people who work outdoors are also at higher risk because they have so much more exposure time. Pregnant people take more breaths per minute, which raises their risk of inhaling particulate matter on smoky days. Breathing in lots of smoke while pregnant has been associated with lower birth weights and higher rates of preterm birth, and there’s evidence suggesting there could be direct effects of the inhaled toxins on developing fetuses. And because low-income people are more likely to have untreated heart and lung disease — and often have less access to preventive measures — they’re also at higher than average risk when air quality plummets. What are the symptoms of air pollution-related effects, and when should you seek care for them? Any number of symptoms can occur in people who breathe smoky air, regardless of their baseline health. Common ones are irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, trouble breathing, and chest tightness. Although these symptoms are annoying, they’re concerning only in the sense that they indicate airway irritation, which if repeated and prolonged, can raise the risk for longer-term consequences of air pollution exposure. People with asthma and COPD may have additional symptoms of exposure — usually the same ones they get in response to other triggers (like viral infections or allergens). Wheezers will wheeze, coughers will cough, and whatever other symptoms a person typically gets will be aggravated. For those with asthma and COPD, medications used to treat episodic worsening of these conditions — albuterol for asthma attacks, for example — should also work to resolve symptoms triggered by smoke exposure. Albuterol may also be useful as “pre-treatment” before going outside (masked, of course) for people with these conditions. Croft recommends that during wildfire season, people who use these medications should do their best to ensure they have an ample supply so they don’t run out in the middle of a coughing or wheezing fit. There are some red flags that suggest a person might need some extra medical care to get through smoke-related symptoms. One is being unable to catch your breath, which might feel like having such trouble breathing that you can’t speak. Another is coughing that doesn’t stop. Low blood oxygen levels even when breathing normally — measured with home oxygen saturation monitors that clip onto the end of a finger, which many people acquired during Covid — are also a signal to seek medical care. For people who use albuterol for quick relief of asthma or COPD exacerbations, it should raise concern if those medications stop working. And for those who occasionally check their lung function by blowing air into a peak flow meter, seeing an unchanged peak flow measurement after an albuterol dose is also something to look out for. How can you reduce the health impacts of polluted air? Staying indoors as much as possible with the windows closed is the best way to avoid breathing polluted air. Whether you’re in a building or in a vehicle, roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioning or the fan. Central air conditioning units usually have an air filter built in, so turning it on will circulate most of the outside air past a filter before it enters your living space. Even in homes with central heating but not cooling, running the fan (with the heat off) circulates air past the furnace filter, which still improves its quality. Unfortunately, window air conditioning units don’t do much filtration — so while they might cool you down, they won’t do much to remove pollutants from the air. Home air purifiers usually have finer filters than central air conditioning units, so can remove smaller bits of particulate matter from the air. These can be very helpful for removing smoky, sooty bits from indoor air, which may be particularly important for keeping people with lung and heart conditions safe. (Croft notes it’s important to turn off the ionizing function if your purifier has one, as this function can increase air levels of ozone, another lung irritant.) And if you must go outdoors, use an N95 mask or one with even better filtration capacity, said Croft, and try to avoid strenuous exercise or other activities that would require you to take lots of deep breaths outdoors. There’s no need to avoid errands that don’t require lots of outdoor time, like grocery store trips, but limit outdoor playtime for children to the extent possible. “There really is no safe level of air pollution,” said Croft. He uses the AirNow website or app to track air quality on a daily basis; as soon as the air quality metrics depart the safe green zone, he says, people should layer on all the protections they can. “Even at low levels of air pollutions, there can be harmful effects to the body.” “Whether you have lung disease or not,” said Croft, “it’s important to just keep yourself safe.”
Can crypto survive in Biden’s America?
President Biden appointed a number of people to take on tech, and that’s just what they’re doing. | Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images The SEC has come for Coinbase. The Securities and Exchange Commission sued Coinbase on Tuesday, accusing the crypto giant of operating as an unregistered securities exchange, broker, and clearing agency, and of offering and selling securities without registering. The lawsuit came just a day after the SEC sued Binance for fraud. And now it’s easy to see why SEC chair Gary Gensler is known as crypto’s nemesis. Gensler is also one of several Biden appointees who are vocal opponents of big technology companies. Now that we’re more than two years into Joe Biden’s presidency, these regulators have largely made good on promises to crack down on certain business practices in Silicon Valley and beyond, though results have varied. While opponents claim that these agencies are abusing their power and overreaching, supporters say the agencies are a necessary check on industries that have been allowed to grow and thrive with few regulations, often to Americans’ detriment. In the Coinbase lawsuit, the SEC claims that certain tokens exchanged on the platform qualify as securities and are therefore subject to the SEC’s regulations, including a requirement for Coinbase to register as a securities exchange, broker, and clearing agency. Coinbase also, the SEC says, sells securities through its “Earn” staking program. At the heart of all of this is Gensler’s unwavering belief that most crypto assets are securities, so they fall under his agency’s purview and are subject to its rules. Coinbase says the tokens aren’t securities, but it sure would love some legislation that makes all of this clear (preferably that Coinbase helps write) rather than being in the middle of a years-long turf war between the securities and commodities agencies over who is in charge of what. The SEC maintains that it has oversight here and that Coinbase knows it. “You simply can’t ignore the rules because you don’t like them or because you’d prefer different ones” “Coinbase was fully aware of the applicability of the federal securities laws to its business activities, but deliberately refused to follow them,” Gurbir S. Grewal, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a statement. “You simply can’t ignore the rules because you don’t like them or because you’d prefer different ones.” Coinbase’s chief legal officer and general counsel Paul Grewal (yes, he has the same last name as his SEC opponent) said in a statement to Vox that instead of providing clear rules and guidance for the industry, the SEC has taken an “enforcement-only approach.” He also said in a blog post in March that, according to Coinbase’s analysis of whether a digital asset is a security, Coinbase doesn’t list or offer securities to customers. As the new lawsuit indicates, the SEC’s analysis of the situation is quite the opposite. Coinbase’s Grewal also called for “legislation that allows fair rules for the road to be developed transparently and applied equally, not litigation.” We’ve seen some efforts from Congress to pass such legislation, the latest being a draft bill from two Republican representatives. Gensler has said existing laws work just fine; the problem is that crypto exchanges don’t want to comply with them. For its part, Coinbase claims that the SEC refuses to provide any clarity on its regulations, nor will the agency let it register as a security exchange. Then there’s the Binance lawsuit, which is more about whether it committed fraud than it is about which crypto assets are securities, as the Coinbase suit is centered on. Binance denies the allegations, saying, “We now join a number of other crypto projects facing similarly misguided actions from the SEC.” There are a lot of crypto-related actions from the SEC, many of which haven’t gone the crypto industry’s way. A few examples: Kraken recently paid $30 million and ended its staking service to settle SEC charges. The SEC just settled its case against a former Coinbase employee who was accused of insider trading of tokens (the employee pleaded guilty to criminal charges brought by the Department of Justice last February and was sentenced to two years in prison). Last October, Kim Kardashian shelled out $1.26 million in SEC fines to settle a case over her promotion of a token on an Instagram story, and then in March, several other celebrities paid to resolve a similar case over undisclosed promotions of tokens. Crypto lender Genesis and crypto exchange Gemini were sued for selling unregistered securities last January. There are also, of course, multiple actions regarding FTX. Coinbase canceled its Lend program in September 2021 after the SEC threatened to sue them over it. But Lend never got started; the things the SEC is going after Coinbase for now very much have. These latest lawsuits show that the SEC isn’t afraid to take on the largest crypto exchanges in the world (Binance) and the US (Coinbase) in court. The fact that crypto’s fortunes (and those of many of its investors) have declined precipitously in the last year and a half has probably made them easier targets. There is the broader theme here, too, which is that this is another example of how the Biden administration is taking on — or at least wants to give everyone the perception that it’s taking on — loosely regulated tech industries that previous administrations largely left alone. In March 2022, Biden signed an executive order about crypto, calling for, among other things, a digital currency issued by the US Central Bank. Big Tech’s perceived abuses have gotten even more of the administration’s attention. Biden has written and talked many times about the need to better regulate Big Tech through new laws and administrative actions. While Congress has largely failed to pass Big Tech-centered antitrust laws, the two antitrust enforcement agencies, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, are led by appointees who have been adversarial to Big Tech: Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter, respectively. Biden also picked Tim Wu, longtime critic of Big Everything, as his antitrust adviser. Wu was a key author of Biden’s competition executive order, but left the job at the end of last year. Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images FTC chair Lina Khan and SEC chair Gary Gensler talk shop. Kanter’s DOJ sued Google in January over allegations that Google’s digital ad business was an illegal monopoly, adding to another antitrust lawsuit the DOJ filed toward the end of the Trump administration against Google over its search and search advertising business. Google has denied it’s done anything wrong, and it’s likely that a court will ultimately decide who’s right. The DOJ is also believed to be investigating Apple over its App Store. Khan’s FTC is still trying to break up Meta, and it sued Microsoft to block its acquisition of Activision-Blizzard. We’re waiting for a resolution in those cases that may well take years. The FTC’s attempt to block Meta from acquiring a VR developer, however, was knocked down in court — a win for Meta. There are rumors that the FTC will take on Amazon for alleged antitrust violations at some point, too. Some of Khan’s impact may be less visible. That includes the decrease in mergers and acquisitions that some have at least partially blamed on companies not wanting to deal with an FTC or DOJ they expect to be adversarial. Though progress on the Big Tech antitrust front has been slow, the FTC is getting some results on consumer protection-related actions against tech companies for business practices that are widespread and, the agency says, illegal. We’re seeing settlements for relatively small amounts that may prove to be significant in other ways. A $1.5 million fine for GoodRx over sharing users’ health data with third parties won’t hurt its bottom line, but it also allowed the FTC to use a method it never has before, the Health Breach Notification Rule, to do it. Last month, the FTC used that rule again to go after a fertility app. There’s also the pair of settlements announced last week involving Amazon. The FTC fined Amazon $30.8 million over privacy violations and inadequate security measures in Ring cameras and children’s privacy violations on its Alexa voice assistant. While that dollar figure seems small to one of the world’s largest retailers, it showed that this FTC takes privacy seriously (if there was any doubt) and puts at least some of the burden on companies to ensure their products are secure, rather than foisting the entire responsibility onto their customers. And let’s not forget that just two days ago, the FTC got a $20 million settlement from Microsoft over children’s privacy law violations on its Xbox gaming platform. Epic Games also agreed to pay a record children’s privacy violation fine — $275 million — at the end of last year, as well as another $245 million for tricking young users into making purchases, and then making it exceedingly difficult for their parents to cancel them. That’s part of the FTC’s initiative to stop manipulative web design, also known as dark patterns. On that front, the FTC has also begun the process of making a rule that would require companies to make their products as easy to cancel as they were to sign up for. While the FTC and SEC have been busy, one agency that hasn’t really lived up to expectations is the Federal Communications Commission, which many thought would bring back net neutrality. It can’t, because there are two Democratic commissioners and two Republicans, who will never agree to net neutrality. Biden hasn’t been able to get a third Democrat on the commission in almost two and a half years. His latest attempt, Anna Gomez, was lauded by at least one telecommunications company. That bodes well for her chances of getting confirmed, and less so that the Biden administration’s more progressive goals will be achieved. Looking far more likely these days, at least in the short term, is the SEC’s fight against crypto, a notoriously fraud-filled space that a lot of consumers have been hurt by, especially as its fortunes have declined. Coinbase believes it has done nothing wrong and will fight the SEC to prove it, on behalf of the entire industry that, CEO Brian Armstrong says, is simply asking for clarity that the SEC refuses to provide. He has a few pro-crypto lawmakers in his corner, like Sens. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who accused Gensler of “weaponizing” the agency, and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), who decried the SEC’s “regulation by enforcement.” Assuming Coinbase doesn’t fold, we’ll see who the courts think is right.
Why Spider-Verse fans see Gwen Stacy as a transgender allegory
Some Spider-Verse fans see Gwen (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, center) as a hero and ally for trans rights. | Sony/Columbia Pictures In Across the Spider-Verse, Gwen Stacy has a “protect trans kids” flag in her room and her dad has a trans flag on his uniform. At any given moment there are a million things happening inSpider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse — we’re pinging around the multiverse, meeting dozens of Spider-Man variants, visiting Mumbattan, learning about Spider-Man 2099’s Minority Report-esque police force, and so many things in between. It’s a movie that requires multiple viewings to catch all the details stuffed into every gorgeous frame. For a certain group of fans though, there’s one stand-out, joyful detail you just can’t miss: Gwen Stacy’s support for transgender people. In the wake of the movie’s massive box office success, eagle-eyed Across the Spider-Verse devotees have pointed out that the Spider-Woman is literally — e.g., has a trans flag in her room — and symbolically — e.g., experiences the allegory of coming out — depicted as a trans ally, if not trans herself. There’s a dearth of LGBTQ superheroes depicted in mainstream, blockbuster movies, so Gwen’s possible transness — and even her allyship — is a big deal. If superheroes are queer, it’s often addressed obliquely, mostly in postscript interviews and only in the faintest of gestures on-screen. Coupled with the current, hostile climate toward trans people in the US, the heroine of the biggest movie in America being trans would be monumental. I reached out to Sony to see if the writing team, directors, or artists who created the movie had a comment about how Gwen Stacy has resonated with fans but haven’t heard back. In the meantime, here’s what those fans found, and why at the end of the day it might not matter to these fans what the official word is. For them, it’s something special about this character that can’t be taken away. In Across the Spider-Verse, Gwen Stacy supports trans people While the question of if Gwen herself is trans is more complicated, her support for trans people is literal and obvious: the movie’s artists drew a “protect trans kids” flag in her room. Gwen’s flag signals that in her world, trans kids are being targeted and this issue is important enough to her to take up space on her bedroom walls. Sony/Columbia Pictures Gwen’s “protect trans kids” is in the upper right-hand corner of the picture. Fans also noticed that Gwen’s father, policeman George Stacy, has a transgender flag that he wears on his uniform. That’s notable for a couple of reasons. One of those is that in the real world, trans rights advocates have said that trans people, especially Black transgender people, often face discrimination from law enforcement. Said discrimination is a huge reason why trans people don’t feel comfortable asking police for help. Captain Stacy’s support for trans rights seems like an anomaly when compared to the real world. Sony/Columbia Captain Stacy’s uniform with a trans rights flag. Story-wise, there’s a question of why Captain Stacy is so supportive and what that means about their world, Earth-65. If trans kids need protection, as the flag in Gwen’s room suggests, it seems like trans people are still persecuted and discriminated against, and possibly that support for transgender people is a minority viewpoint. The police force that Captain Stacy heads likely isn’t unanimously for trans rights if he still has to wear a flag on his uniform. That raises the question of why Captain Stacy wears the flag. Is this a story of a father supporting his daughter? Does the support for trans rights stem from him to his daughter or is it because Gwen taught him how to support trans rights? In Gwen’s characterization on-screen in both movies, the character never explicitly identifies as transgender or cisgender, but artists in Across the Spider-Verse drape the character in the colors of the transgender flag — light pink, light blue, and white. They show up in her constantly changing hair, and around her in her room. These colors are especially pronounced when Gwen is in her own world, where the artistic conceit is that the colors around her reflect her feelings. In a sequence where she talks to her father about her secret identity, a moment where she’s afraid and anxious, the room she’s in melts away into those pinks, blues, and whites. Perhaps it’s all a coincidence, but these artists — the same ones who deliberately put the “protect trans kids” flag in Gwen’s room — are aware of the symbolism of these colors. Sony/Columbia Pictures Gwen Stacy is often draped in the blues, pinks, and whites of the trans flag. There’s a long history of superheroes — the X-Men particularly — as stand-ins for outsiders, and queer people especially. Seeing the trans and queer subtext in the details of Gwen’s story isn’t that different from picking up LGBTQ or civil rights themes with superheroes of the past, especially since Across the Spider-Verse very much leans into an allegory anchored in queer subtext. Why Across the Spider-Verse is an allegory for coming out Compared to other Marvel superheroes, Spider-Man is unique — whether it’s Peter Parker or Miles Morales or any variation of Spider-Man — in that Spider-Man needs to keep his identity a secret. Heroes like the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America are treated like celebrities — the public lionized the latter two in the MCU — or well-known figures. Those heroes are also adults. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the Peter Parker version of the character, they wanted to speak to the fears and the joys of being a teen. Parker’s journey was different than his adult peers in the Avengers, or the Fantastic Four, or the X-Men, because he was balancing fitting in in high school, falling for his first love, getting As, making friends, trying to be a good kid for Aunt May — trying to live that “normal,” already anxiety-ridden teen life, all while being a superhero. Spider-Man was a hit, and has continued to be such a beloved character because his existence assured teens and everyone who’s ever been a teen, that all those parts of growing up and all the emotions attached to them are true, serious parts of our own stories. Sony/Columbia Pictures Across the Spider-Verse establishes that Spider-Man can be anyone — regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Spider-Man doesn’t tell his friends and family that he’s Spider-Man because he wants to protect them and wants to, as much as he can, be a regular teenager. He keeps this fantastical, powerful secret from the people he loves and it creates a tension that eats away at him. The closest people in his life don’t know his secret life. Canonically, Spider-Man — in the movies we’ve seen and the most popular iterations of the character — is straight but his narrative identity operates with a lot of components of a coming-out story. LGBTQ people were probably not top of mind when Lee, Ditko, Jack Kirby, and the godfathers of Marvel comics created their stories some 60 years ago. But those artists told their own experiences of being outsiders through allegory, and that’s why their superhero stories resonate with anyone — LGBTQ people, people of color, and so many people who these creators probably never understood they were reaching — who has ever felt like they don’t fit in. The Spider-Verse franchise has leaned into that subtext and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. It’s even more prominent in the sequel. Early in the movie, Miles’s guidance counselor tells Rio, Miles’s mom, that he’s lying to her about something. Because Rio is a good mom, she already knows. She also doesn’t push him on it. When she and her husband catch Miles with Gwen, she gets a moment alone with him. She gives Miles a touching talk about how she sees him, how she knows he’s keeping a secret, and how her biggest worry isn’t that Miles is a bad kid or getting into trouble, but that the world around them won’t love her son the way she loves him. Rio’s worries about her son mirror so many fears that parents of LGBTQ children have — mainly that family acceptance is the easy part and it’s that not being able to protect them from the world they live in is much more difficult. She knows he has a secret and she’ll love him no matter what. But she also knows that not everyone will accept her son as much as she does. In Across the Spider-Verse, one ofthe core ideas is that anyone can be a version of Spider-Man. This helps to further the LGBTQ allegory. The multiverse operates in a way that there are seemingly infinite Spider-People across all these parallel timelines and being a Spider-Person transcends gender, age, race, or even being human (see: Peter Parkedcar). Even if the main leads of Across the Spider-Verse aren’t LGBTQ, this vast multiverse ensures that there’s someone who is and who is a Spider-Person. And therein lies perhaps the biggest question: If there’s all this possibility within Across The Spider-Verse, then why not just go for it and give us a trans or LGBTQ Spider-Person? The story allows for it. The world logic is sound. Why not just have the subtext be text? Why do we need decoder rings? The complicated calculus of LGBTQ representation The answer, as movie studios have exhibited time after time, is that box office and profit always drive decisions. In China, censors regularly remove LGBTQ content. With that in mind, studios want to be able to show their films in China, unlocking millions and millions of box office dollars, so it’s in the studios’ best financial interest to play it safe with LGBTQ themes or risk not being able to show there. The current political climate in the US isn’t that different. Companies like Budweiser and Target have been singled out and boycotted by right-wing groups for featuring LGBTQ people. Those boycotts operate in bad faith, connecting the support for gay and transgender rights with condoning child abuse. Having a trans character in an animated movie for kids would invite those boycotts on a scale that we haven’t witnessed. Sony/Columbia Pictures Spider-Gwen can do anything a spider can. That in mind, studios have tried to parlay small bits of LGBTQ diversity into selling points. Disney was, for a time, pushing milestones like “the first openly gay animated character” which turned out to be a lesbian cyclops in Onward who mentions her partner in a throwaway scene. The first “gay” character in a Marvel movie was just some guy (played by director Joe Russo) in Avengers: Endgame with a similar forgettable line about going on a date. Similarly, the “first gay superhero” in Marvel was hyped up to be Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) from the Thor franchise, which was more of a talking point during the press tour than anything was shown on-screen. These bits and pieces of LGBTQ “representation” are a way for studios to court liberal and LGBTQ audiences while still straddling the line when it comes to China or conservative ire. Corporations will not save you if they need to make money! A movie’s giant box office isn’t going to make anyone’s life better, outside of the people who get paid for a movie having a giant box office. If only changing the irksome bits of reality was as easy as giving corporations money. At the same time though, it’s worth noting that Sony hasn’t been trying to parlay Gwen into a marketing tool or stunt. The trans support for this movie feels like an organic fan movement that audiences noticed, and sought out. Clearly, it’s brought people joy. There’s a limit to how much representation can do, especially representation that isn’t even being claimed by the studio, but that doesn’t change what these fans see, or what it means to them. If having Spider-Woman in your corner makes this particular universe a little easier for some, that’s something worth seeing.
1 d
How streaming caused the TV writers strike
The way scripted television gets made today has transformed the careers of writers. Thousands of television and film writers who are part of the Writers Guild of America are in the middle of a historic strike. They’re forming picket lines in front of studios and productions in New York and Los Angeles and shutting down active sets. The last time they went on strike was 15 years ago — when streaming’s impact on the film and television industry was only just taking shape. This time around, they are striking for better residuals and rights against the looming threat of AI, among other concerns. At the core of this dispute is streaming and how it has revolutionized the industry. Companies like Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, and more have given consumers an unprecedented array of films and TV shows and opened the door to new voices that don’t have to adhere to mainstream network formats. On the other hand, it has also changed how television gets produced, the role writers play, and how they get paid. We interviewed four television writers and showrunners about how streaming has changed how they work, how their incomes have taken a hit, and why it has become harder than ever to build a career. Disclosure: Vox Media’s editorial team is also unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East. But its members are not part of the strike covered in this video, nor are they part of the contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. You can find this video and the entire library of Vox’s videos on YouTube.
1 d
Firing Chris Licht won’t fix CNN
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav onstage in April 2023. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images Ever after its CEO’s firing, CNN remains stuck in no man’s land. Technically, the news is that CNN CEO Chris Licht was pushed out this morning. But the only newsy part of that statement is that it happened this morning: Licht, whose tenure at the cable news giant barely lasted a year, has been a dead man walking for the last week. The real question is whether Licht’s former boss, Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav, has learned anything over the course of the debacle. It’s not clear that he has. The very fast recap: Zaslav took over CNN and the rest of the company that used to be called Time Warner last spring. Then he installed Licht, a TV producer who most recently had turned around Stephen Colbert’s late-night CBS show, to replace former CNN boss Jeff Zucker, who had been pushed out by the previous owners. Licht then told anyone and everyone that his job was to fix CNN by reversing its supposed slide into liberal anti-Trump activism. Things went south immediately: Disgruntled CNN staff distrusted Licht from the jump; Licht distrusted his staff; ratings plummeted from Trump and Covid-era highs, and things culminated in a much-derided “town hall” event with Trump last month. Then all of this was cataloged in great detail by the Atlantic’s Tim Alberta, who published a devastating 15,000-word piece about Licht’s tenure — with Licht’s hubristic co-operation — five days ago. Following the Atlantic piece, the only question about Licht’s position at the network was the timing of his departure. But in the year prior to the Atlantic piece, Zaslav had insisted, publicly and privately, that Licht was doing great, and that his head-to-the-middle strategy was the right way to go. Days after the Trump town hall, Zaslav told investors that CNN was on the rise, due to the fact that it was now committed to showing “both sides” and courting Republicans. “Chris is rebuilding the network,” he said. “It’s going to take some time ... We’re making real progress on that.” But a few weeks later, Zaslav was unwilling to talk to Alberta on the record about Licht’s tenure (presumably he had heard, as I had, that the piece was going to “go off like a nuclear bomb” at CNN, as an insider had told me before publication). And yesterday “a person close to Zaslav” — a journalese convention that usually means Zaslav himself, or a Zaslav public relations person speaking with Zaslav’s permission — told the Wall Street Journal that Zaslav “is also losing patience with the number of [Licht’s] self-inflicted wounds and missteps.” Which puts Zaslav in an uncomfortable position that someone ought to ask him about next time he speaks on the record: Did Zaslav truly believe that CNN was crushing it as recently as last month — and that it took a story from another media outlet to convince him that he was deeply wrong? Now Zaslav says he’ll look for a replacement for Licht, starting with internal candidates. (A group of CNN veterans and the recently installed chief operating officer David Leavy, a close Zaslav confidant, will run things in the meantime.) Presumably he can find someone less openly antagonistic to the people the new leader is going to manage than Licht was. But unless Zaslav completely rethinks his theory of the case for CNN, that person is going to inevitably struggle, too. News can’t save cable news That’s because Zaslav’s premise — which, as I’ve noted before, happens to be the same premise held by John Malone, the conservative investor who is Zaslav’s longtime mentor and sits on Zaslav’s board — is that CNN had failed because it wasn’t centrist enough and that it needed to tack to the right to attract guests, advertisers, and viewers. But that wasn’t at all true. Yes, under Zucker, CNN had thrived financially with programming that often responded to Trump tweets as if they were major news events. But prior to that era of programming, Zucker’s CNN had thrived by giving Trump — then a can’t-look-away political novelty — a platform for nearly every utterance he had in the 2016 election cycle. And prior to that, CNN had thrived by “event-izing” minor news stories about things like disappearing planes or white women. The point being, CNN worked not because it found ways to program a 24-hour news channel with news, because people have never wanted to watch 24-hour news. It worked because it found something else besides news to fill the time and keep people watching. Yes, some people will turn to CNN or other cable TV channels in times of crisis or something truly extraordinary. But even that’s a habit specific to people who’ve grown up with TV, a number that’s shrinking all the time — only 58.5 percent of people in the US get pay TV at all anymore. Meanwhile, if you’re in the small percentage of people who deeply care about news, it’s available to you in the phone in your pocket, 24/7. And everyone else just watches ... whatever. Which, obviously, is a problem that all cable news channels face. CNN rivals Fox News, MSNBC — and, at least for the moment, Newsmax? — deal with the structural challenge not by programming news but by acting as partisan cheering sections. But there’s no cheering section for “neutrality,” despite what media executives and some journalists may insist. That’s what CNN’s previous management always understood. That doesn’t mean CNN isn’t a valuable journalism resource — I’ll still reflexively turn to it when something truly remarkable is happening, and I’m pretty online for a middle-aged dude. And it doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable business — up until last year, the unit was reliably generating $1 billion in annual profits. But it does mean that its next manager and its current owner need to be realistic about what the company can do now and in the future. And they need to stop trying to pretend it’s something else.
1 d
Why New York City has some of the worst air in the world right now
Smoke shrouds the sun as it rises behind the skyline of lower Manhattan in New York City on June 7, 2023. | Gary Hershorn/Getty Images Canada’s smoke blanketing the US is just the latest example of intensifying wildfires. New York City had the worst air quality of any major city in the world Tuesday night, according to air quality technology company IQAir. Earlier that morning, the National Weather Service issued an air quality alert — a warning indicating high levels of air pollution and therefore related health risks — for residents in New York state, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Unhealthy air pollution levels can lead to a range of adverse health reactions, from eye, nose, and throat irritation to decreased lung and heart function. It’s even worse for at-risk groups, such as children, seniors, and those with heart and lung problems. Fortunately for New York City, where there’s smoke, there’s not always fire (at least in the immediate area). The flames causing this public health crisis are actually well over 300 miles away, in Quebec, Canada. Smoke is drifting across the northeastern US, and the dry winds accompanying it in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are increasing the risk of new fires cropping up. “I don’t think people appreciate that smoke can travel for hundreds if not thousands of miles, and so it’s often that we don’t have control of the situation, even though we are dealing with the impacts of it,” said Edward Avol, professor emeritus of the environmental health division of the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. Still, this extreme fire event and its long-ranging smoke trail indicate a much larger and concerning trend: wildfires are getting worse, lasting longer, and occurring more frequently, primarily due to climate change. Although wildfires are a natural part of an ecosystem’s life cycle, when extreme, they create catastrophic damage to both the natural and human world. The crucial thing, experts told Vox, is that we must learn to adapt, especially as extreme weather events become more regular. “There’s no future where we don’t have fire,” said Matthew Hurteau, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico. “So we have to start thinking about: how do we live in a more smoky world?” Climate change is making fire season more severe Canada is on track to experience its most destructive wildfire season on record. More than 160 forest fires raging across Quebec contribute significantly to this unfortunate milestone. The province’s fire season normally begins in early May, and usually destroys only a square mile by early June. But this year, fires across the province consumed 600 square miles by June 3. Last week, the Canadian province was only battling 10 blazes, but that number soared to 153 fires on Monday. As of Tuesday, Quebec only had enough wilderness firefighters on the ground to fight 30 of these fires, but Quebec Premier François Legault said in the coming week, 200 firefighters from France and the US will join the approximately 480 wilderness firefighters already on the ground. This outbreak in fires is due to low humidity and rain, and lightning strikes — conditions that are becoming more common due to climate change. Our atmosphere acts like a sponge, absorbing water from our ecosystems, said Hurteau, who studies climate change mitigation and adaptation in forest systems. The size of our atmospheric “sponge” depends on the temperature: the hotter the climate, the bigger the sponge. Because of climate change, this sponge is gulping up a lot of our planet’s moisture, leading to drier, more fire-prone regions. “Those forests burn periodically. I think what’s unique about this year is that the forests are so dry that the fires are many times larger than they normally are,” said Hurteau. In addition to worsening fires, climate change and the fossil fuels that cause it are increasing air pollution, both directly and indirectly. At a 2020 House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, Drew Shindell, a professor of earth science at Duke University, stated that limiting global warming to 2°C would prevent 4.5 million premature deaths (some due to air pollution) over the next 50 years. Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images The Statue of Liberty is shrouded in a reddish haze as a result of Canadian wildfires on June 6. Most of New York state, Connecticut, and parts of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts reported “unhealthy” Air Quality Index (AQI) levels Tuesday, June 6. AQI indicates the level of health concern from air pollution and provides guidance accordingly. The number, which is shared by the EPA, falls between zero and 500. As Vox’s Rebecca Leber explains: ”AQI numbers are color-coded from ‘good’ to ‘hazardous’: The higher the number, the worse the pollution and the darker the colors.” An AQI of 101 to 150 — the orange zone — means the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups, like people with heart or lung disease, or children. New York entered the red zone (150-200) for most of yesterday, but crossed into the purple zone with an AQI of 218 last night. At the red, purple, and maroon levels, the air is unhealthy for all groups and people should limit or completely avoid spending time outdoors. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation issued a citywide air-quality health advisory Tuesday, and NYC public schools will not have outdoor recess. Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement that conditions are “expected to deteriorate” Wednesday afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, the incidence of extreme fire events like these will only become more likely from here, the United Nations Environment Programme predicts, with a 14 percent increase projected in the next seven years. This isn’t to say all wildfires are universally bad. In moderation, fires serve an essential role in the natural world. Forest fires clear old, dead foliage, and release seeds that then sprout into new healthier, stronger growth. But now, warmer and drier climates create these extreme fire events which prevent forests from regenerating post-fire. And, it’s important to note that not all types of forests can withstand the same frequency of fires, said Hurteau. For example, boreal systems, which are found across Canada, should burn very infrequently, he added. “If it burns too frequently, you end up completely changing the vegetation,” said Hurteau. “Depending on the system, we can intervene in ways, and in some places that might be lighting fires, so that we’re restoring ecologically appropriate fire. And then in some places, it’s going to be trying to exclude fire.” What to do when the air quality is unhealthy Between 1960 and 2000, the air quality in the US was improving, but in recent years pollution from climate change-caused fires, droughts, and heat have begun to unravel this progress. Globally, air pollution results in an estimated 7 million premature deaths annually, which means recognizing the signs of this sometimes invisible killer is vital. You can check AQI levels on your phone’s weather app, the EPA’s AirNow website, or with a physical air quality monitor. When AQI levels are in the red zone, like in New York currently, the guidance is to stay indoors and try to prevent smoky air from coming inside. Seal doors and windows as much as possible, and ensure that air conditioning systems have the right filtration systems. For those in New York City right now, even a window AC unit is “better than nothing,” said Avol, since at minimum it’ll filter larger particles. If you have a HEPA air filter lingering around from the early days of the pandemic, now it’s a good time to turn it on. We also often underestimate exactly what we’re breathing in. It’s not just the smoke from a wildfire that can do damage, but also the way the particles from a fire chemically react in the air, which increases the level of other contaminants, like ozone, said Avol. If a wildfire burns in a forest, then it’s primarily shrubbery and trees turning to ash, but when a fire destroys homes, power lines, cables, and other materials, it can release other dangerous, non-organic particles. “The initial thing that people think of — because of the smoke — is it must be wood burning,” he said. “Which, 90 percent of the time that’s a big part of it, but it’s not the only thing and may not be the only thing of health concern.” If you can’t stay indoors, then following the same masking rules used to manage the Covid-19 pandemic provides the most significant level of protection. When possible, wear a N95 mask secured tightly across your face, covering your nose and mouth, said Avol. Avoid strenuous activity outdoors — such as a run — if you’re in a sensitive group. (Even if you are healthy, it’s still worth limiting your exposure outside as negative air pollution effects are cumulative.) Last, because air quality can have such a detrimental effect on vulnerable populations — children, the elderly, pregnant people, those with lung and heart problems — check in on neighbors and loved ones. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms like dizziness, aggravated cough, or headaches, try to head to cleaner air indoors with the AC running. If the symptoms intensify to include chest tightness, pain when breathing, or difficulty breathing when not doing physical activity, seek medical attention. These methods aren’t foolproof, but they will help us live through the smokier future ahead. “Even if we shut off fossil fuel emissions tomorrow, we still have a certain amount of warming in the system that’s already happened,” said Hurteau. “We’re going to have to figure out how to live with it. We’re going to have to figure out how to manage our relationship with fire, and we’re going to have to figure out how to manage the ecosystems as they’re impacted by fire in different ways.”
1 d
Plant burgers are way better for the planet than beef, but these 2 ingredients threaten tropical ecosystems
A farmer arranges his coconuts in Poi Village, Sigi Regency, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, in January 2020. Coconut farmers in the region have struggled with the declining price of copra, the dried flesh of coconut from which coconut oil is extracted. | Basri Marzuki/NurPhoto via Getty Images How plant-based meat’s dependence on coconut and cacao could become a liability. Jalil, a 50-year-old cacao farmer in Palopo, Sulawesi, Indonesia, has never heard of plant-based meats, nor the American company Beyond Meat. When told, he is surprised to hear that cocoa butter made from beans like those grown on his farm, which he has been tending for 30 years, could end up in a Beyond Burger. “I have no idea where my cacao beans go,” said Jalil. “I thought it’s all for chocolate.” That may once have been true, but the rapid growth of plant-based meats in recent years has begun to fundamentally alter agricultural supply chains, creating new demand for key ingredients like cocoa butter and coconut oil. Yet even as the plant-based meat industry is snapping up more of those ingredients, small farmers like Jalil say they’re not seeing any benefit. “Cacao farming is getting increasingly difficult,” he said, pointing to unpredictable prices, a more variable climate, and growing risk of crop disease as growing challenges. “Many farmers are cutting down their cacao trees” and abandoning their plantations. (Cacao is the raw, unprocessed product of the cacao fruit, from which cocoa is roasted and processed.) What is happening on the ground in Sulawesi should serve as a major warning sign for the plant-based meat companies that rely on these tropical oils. Facing slowing growth in the United States, plant-based meat producers are working hard to reduce costs in the hope of hitting a goal deemed essential to their future: bringing the price of plant-based meat in line with that of beef or pork. Industry watchers warn that plant-based alternatives will struggle to break out of their current niche status unless they can achieve price parity with meat. “Long-term price parity is the only way that these products are going to be competitive,” said Ryan Nebeker, a research analyst at the nonprofit Foodprint. One way to do that is to lower ingredient costs, but supply chain challenges and threats from climate change could make achieving that goal tough. Much of the supply of coconut oil and cacao butter comes from countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana, with weak labor and environmental protections.There is a risk that a desire to lower costs could result in purchasing cacao butter or coconut oil from less ethical sources. These are delicate questions to ask. Nothing can take away from the fact that the emissions and deforestation footprints of beef are far worse than those of plant-based alternatives. Beef is an outsize driver of deforestation around the world, including in the vital Amazon rainforest. One serving of beef, as Vox has reported, requires as much as 20 times more land and four times more water, and creates more emissions, than an equivalent serving of plant-based meat. Tim Ryan Williams/Vox But no diet is free from impacts on the planet and those who live on it. Even as the plant-based meat sector offers an important tool in mitigating climate change — not to mention reducing the number of animals sent to the slaughterhouse — there are risks of unintended environmental and labor consequences. That includes significant localized impacts in tropical cacao- and coconut-growing regions in Asia and Africa, areas that haven’t been as intensively impacted by the beef industry as South America. Even though their products are indisputably more friendly to the planet, those consequences present key business challenges to plant-based meat producers as they try to scale their industry. Pressure to cut costs from Beyond and Impossible, neither of which has the publicly available sustainable sourcing policies or guidelines that are increasingly common in the packaged food industry, risks exacerbating problems such as deforestation, the use of child and forced labor, and sub-living wages for farmers and workers. Those aren’t the only risks the industry faces in striving to get its ambitious growth plans back on track. Decades of underinvestment and unpredictable prices have left many Indonesian and Filipino farmers unable to maintain their farms, meaning there may simply not be enough cacao butter or coconut oil available. Coconut and cacao make plant-based meat meaty To make their animal-free products, Impossible, Beyond, and a host of smaller rivals have developed a range of substitute ingredients derived from plants, such as pea and soy proteins that mimic the texture and feel of animal proteins. But few are as important as cocoa butter — a key ingredient for Beyond Meat as well as products like UNLIMEAT — or coconut oil, which is used by Impossible Foods and several other brands, including Next Gen Foods’ Tindle plant-based chicken, Conagra’s Gardein beefless burger, Hormel’s Happy Little Plants plant-based meatballs, and NotCo’s NotBurger. Refined coconut oil and cacao butter have unique characteristics that help plant-based products replicate meat. Like animal fats, they remain solid at room temperature, and this high melting point enables plant-based meats to be grilled or cooked similarly to their animal-meat counterparts in gourmet restaurants, fast food chains, or home kitchens. These fats make up between 5 and 20 percent of a plant-based burger; already, major ingredients providers like Cargill and AAK have set up new sales platforms aimed at providing these two oils to the growing plant-based market segment. And that’s just a start. Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit that promotes plant-based alternatives to animal products, estimated in 2021 that plant-based meats will use 19 percent of global coconut production by 2030. GFI acknowledges that the recent slowdown in plant-based meat sales in the US might impact these projections and plans to provide updated figures later this year. But “continued development of the plant-based market outside of the US and Europe will support global growth of this industry,” the organization told Vox. On a warming planet, coconut and cacao supplies are increasingly volatile To achieve rapid sales growth, Beyond and Impossible will need to achieve price parity with meat, which will require steadily increasing supplies of cheap cacao butter and coconut oil. But in a changing climate, where the farmers who produce the raw materials are increasingly struggling to make a living, that supply is far from guaranteed. Take the Philippines, the main exporter of coconut oil to the US. In the province of Quezon, in the southeast of the island of Luzon, a key coconut-growing region, low or unpredictable wages, lack of investment, and extreme weather events have caused many farmers to simply stop growing coconuts in recent years, said Julito Ordinado, a 51-year-old coconut farmer who has been working his family’s fields since he was 12. He says he can no longer make a living from coconuts alone, and often works as a construction day laborer. His brother was so desperate, he chose to cut down his coconut trees and sell them for wood in order to get needed cash. “A coconut tree’s harvest lasts a lifetime, but once you’ve sold all the coco lumber, that’s it,” said Ordinado. “You can’t sell coconuts anymore.” It takes years before new coconut trees can start producing nuts, which means it’s not easy to rapidly expand or shrink production in response to market demand. These problems are compounded by increasingly volatile weather. Last September, Super Typhoon Noru suddenly intensified off the coast of Luzon and slammed into Quezon province’s coconut heartlands. It was the third major typhoon to hit the region since 2020. Many experts connect the growing intensity and frequency of typhoons to climate change. “When typhoons hit coconut farms, it takes up to a year before they can recover,” said Jun Pascua, director of the National Peasants Movement, a Filipino association that represents coconut farmers. The latest storm was so strong that some of Pascua’s farmer-members in districts that were hit directly lost all their coconut trees. The situation in Quezon is common across the region, according to Haigan Murray, co-founder of the Coconut Knowledge Center, an Indonesia-based nonprofit. Production has fallen steadily by about 0.1 percent a year since 2010. This is primarily due to aging trees, a lack of investment in replanting, and limited tools to help farmers diversify their incomes. Worse may be yet to come: By 2027, 80 percent of coconut trees in Southeast Asia will be past their productive peak, producing fewer and fewer coconuts per year or becoming senile, meaning that they are unable to produce coconuts at all, according to estimates from the industry group Sustainable Coconut Partnership. Similar problems are emerging in Indonesia, both in the coconut growing regions of Sumatra and in the lowlands of Sulawesi, which are uniquely suitable for growing cacao. After Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, it is the world’s second major cacao-growing region and the largest direct exporter of cacao butter to the US. According to industry experts, West Africa is the main source of cacao for chocolate; Indonesian cacao is often used for cacao butter. Jervis Gonzales Coconut trees flourish along the Agos River in General Nakar, Quezon Province, in the Philippines. Coconuts are among the major produce in the town, where most coconut farmers are involved in either whole nut farming or copra farming. Cacao farmers are on the front lines of the climate crisis Jalil, the farmer from Palopo, Sulawesi, says he was surrounded by other cacao plantations until a few years ago. But much like what Ordinado has seen in Quezon, many neighboring farmers have cut down their cacao trees and converted to other crops, like rice or oil palm. At the local cacao processor, Gudang 999, Fahmi, the branch manager, buys beans from farmers and dries them before sending them off to a factory in the provincial capital, Makassar, where they are turned into cacao butter by major multinationals such as Cargill and Singapore-based agribusiness giant Olam International. He confirms the dire diagnosis. “We get 70 percent less cacao than a few years ago,” said Fahmi. “Used to be three tons a day, now just one.” There’s a reason for this. At his farm, Jalil quickly identifies a sickened fruit, tearing it from the branch and with a quick jab with his machete, opening it up for me and tearing out the mushy, white seeds. “See, it’s diseased. We have to throw it away.” Because Sulawesi’s dry seasons have been getting hotter due to climate change, plant diseases can spread more easily in lowland-regions like Palopo. According to experts, this is a growing challenge globally. “Many cocoa farmers are on the front lines of the climate crisis, leaving them vulnerable to drought, pests, and diseases that can decimate a harvest,” said Kerry Daroci, cocoa sector lead at the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance. Nithin Coca Jalil shows the author a diseased cacao fruit. Beyond heat, the more frequent floods in the rainy season are also making cacao farming more difficult. Four years ago, heavy rains destroyed nearly half of Jalil’s harvest. “If flooded, cacao can die,” said Jalil. He points to the rice paddies of his neighbors, a crop less susceptible to flooding and supported by a government program that expanded irrigation. “That’s why they switched.” According to Fahmi, all across Sulawesi’s cacao-growing regions, the combination of low prices, increased rain and heat, and government incentives to expand irrigation and promote the growing of staple crops are leading many farmers to do as Jalil’s neighbors did: switch to rice or, in West Sulawesi, oil palm. In West Africa, too, climate change is creating uncertainty over the future availability of cheap cacao butter. Ghana, the world’s second largest producer, saw widespread drought in 2022, which, according to the cacao consultancy Equipoise, led to a more than 30 percent shortfall in production. This has started to impact global cacao prices, which have jumped by about 15 percent since mid-2022, though that has not yet trickled down to farmers like Jalil. So far, the fall in production hasn’t hurt the plant-based meat industry, partly because other users of coconut oil and cacao butter have been able to more easily replace it with alternatives like palm, sunflower, or rapeseed oil. But for Beyond and Impossible’s need for an oil that behaves like animal fat, as well as the desire to avoid using artificial or lab-based alternatives that might put off consumers, coconut oil and cacao butter remain essential. Impossible and Beyond haven’t invested in sustainability tracing Even as the plant-based meat companies grapple with the challenge of finding adequate supplies, environmentalists and other observers see a broader sustainability challenge as the demand for the products increases. “The spike in demand for coconut as a plant-based fat input could ... create negative consequences if no alternative fat sources are concurrently developed,” said Mirte Gosker, managing director of the Good Food Institute’s Asia-Pacific division. One concern is that if there’s a surge in demand for cacao butter for plant-based meat, and if Indonesian cacao butter production continues to fall, companies may be forced to source more from West Africa. There, cacao is seen as a major driver of deforestation, and child labor is widespread. “It’s completely reasonable to believe that if they are trying to achieve price parity, they might choose to go for some unreliable suppliers, especially for ingredients that are hard to source in the first place,” said Nebeker. “But cutting corners causes a lot of problems.” The plant-based meat companies “will face the same issues as other companies that use deforestation-risk commodities like soy or palm oil,” said Erasmus K.H.J. zu Ermgassen, a researcher at Cambridge University. “A lot of these commodities are not currently traceable. It’s important that these companies manage risks in their supply chains.” Supply chain experts believe that the key to avoiding these risks is committing to sustainable sourcing, investing in farmers, and working with third-party nonprofits like Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade, which certify coconut oil and cacao, among other products. They, in return, allow brands to use their logos on their packaging. So far, however, no major plant-based meat brand is using any trusted third-party certifier for their cacao or coconut. In fact, Murray has not seen any of the well-known plant-based meat companies engaging directly with coconut oil producers or farmers. Instead, he believes they are sourcing coconut from the major trading companies: Cargill, AAK, and Barry Callebaut. A decade ago, when Murray first heard about the innovative, plant-based burgers being promoted by Beyond and Impossible, he saw an opportunity. “I saw potential for a win-win relationship between plant-based meat and coconut smallholder farmers,” said Murray. “If consumers of plant-based meat are environmentally conscious, then coconut oil could offer multiple co-benefits, from livelihoods to climate change.” Today, he feels far less hopeful, even after directly meeting with executives from Impossible and other smaller brands. “No one that I spoke to had the first idea about their coconut oil, where it comes from, who grows it, how it’s made, nothing,” said Murray. He points out that the big trading companies are unable to trace the vast majority of their coconut oil. These big trading companies do recognize that there are supply and sustainability challenges facing coconut oil and cacao production. They’ve created a Sustainable Coconut Partnership to increase investment in smallholder production. But Murray points out that in the four years since it was initially formed, the organization has done little. Similarly, media attention on child labor in the cacao industry led Cargill, AAK, Barry Callebaut, and Olam to launch numerous sustainable sourcing initiatives. “They can provide you with cocoa that is traceable, deforestation-free ... but only if you pay extra,” said Etelle Higonnet, a cacao supply chain expert formerly with the nonprofit Mighty Earth. And so far, Impossible, Beyond, or other plant-based meat companies are not listed on reports released by Cargill, AAK, Olam, or Barry Calleabaut among brands paying a premium for traceable cacao. Cargill declined to be interviewed, while Olam and Barry Calleabaut did not respond to requests. An AAK spokesperson sent an emailed response about their coconut oil sourcing, stating that “traceability data is something that has not been a priority for the coconut oil industry in the past and we are working with long and complex supply chain involving many different players,” but that they hope to achieve “first sub-national level,” meaning state or province traceability, “for all our coconut supply chains by 2025.” Higonnet and Murray believe trusting the major trading companies is risky, as they have also been criticized for buying ingredients like cacao from sources known to be using child labor or farming on deforested land. They point to a different model. Some global consumer companies have been successful at reducing these risks by tracing their own supply chains. These include cosmetics brand Dr. Bronner’s and the chocolate producer Alter Eco, which work with Fair Trade certifiers to source coconut oil and cacao butter. Large companies, too, are increasingly rethinking sourcing. Mars, a major candymaker, now operates its own cacao processing facilities in Sulawesi, which allows it to bypass the big traders and directly determine if farmers are meeting its labor and sustainability standards. And just as important, it also offers farmers a higher price. So far, there are no signs that Beyond or Impossible is willing to invest in creating sustainable supply chains. Neither company responded to requests for interviews about their cacao or coconut sourcing. That is why experts such as Higonnet and Murray feel there’s a growing risk that as they and their many smaller rivals expand supply chains and seek to reduce costs, an increase in deforestation, child or forced labor, and sub-living wages for farmers and workers could follow. Jervis Gonzales Stores of dried coconut meat in coconut shells in a storehouse in General Nakar, Philippines. Dried coconut meat — which is used to make copra, from which coconut oil is extracted — tends to have a long shelf life. The future of sourcing So what does the future hold for these two critical ingredients? For cacao, one of two things could happen. Production falls, leading to higher prices, or cacao expands into new regions — most likely cooler upland forests, or new countries, increasing its impact on deforestation and the climate. That is already happening, according to a recent report from Mighty Earth, which found cacao plantations encroaching into protected forests across West Africa. Almost all of this is tied to the global chocolate industry, since plant-based meat is still a small player in cacao, but if its footprint grows, there is a risk that it could contribute to the problem. “Climate, economic displacement, and poor soils are pushing cacao farmers into the forests,” said Gerome Tokpa, the West Africa regional head for Earthworm, a nonprofit. “My fear is that we wake up and it is too late. Companies that source cacao really should be more involved in what is going on on the ground.” Yohannes Samosir, a Sumatra, Indonesia-based agro-scientist and a principal adviser to the coconut company RCA Carbon, has much the same worry for coconut production on his island. “Most of the 3.5 million hectares of Indonesia’s coconut are becoming senile. Unless we do big scale replanting, I don’t think the supply will catch up to the potential increased demand for plant-based meat,” said Samosir. “Should a big plant-based meat company be interested, they could invest in the plantation through a collaboration, or a business-to-business agreement. That would be a good way to secure supply later” while avoiding deforestation. Nithin Coca Cacao beans that have been dried for about three days. These are used to make cacao butter and other products. All this offers an important reminder that all food production has a planetary impact. The environmental footprint of plant burgers pales in comparison to that of meat, but if they manage to reshape how Americans eat, the corresponding shifts in global food production will have real impacts on farmers and critical landscapes in the global south. Plant-based meat companies are responsible for handling those shifts responsibly. Back in Quezon, Ordinado, the struggling coconut farmer, would be happy to provide his crop for use in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods products. “Imagine if we could learn how to help produce ingredients for plant-based meat such as coconut oil,” said Ordinado. “We can work on the production side, while they can work on the processing side. But we need support, we can’t do it ourselves.” Until that happens, he’ll continue to work partly in construction, and his neighbors will likely continue to cut down or neglect their trees — making the price parity and growth dreams of the plant-based meat industry more challenging. Nithin Coca is an Asia-focused freelance journalist who covers climate, environment, and supply chains across the region. He has been awarded fellowships from the Pulitzer Center, the International Center for Journalists, the Solutions Journalism Network, and the Earth Journalism Network, and his reporting has appeared in outlets in North America, Asia, and Europe, including the Financial Times, BBC Future, Mongabay, Nikkei Asia, Yale E360, China Dialogue, the Nation, and Engadget. The reporting of this story was supported by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
1 d
Dirty air can be deadly. Here’s how to protect yourself.
Dark orange skies visible over downtown San Francisco in 2020, the result of wildfires burning across the West. Children and teens are at greater risk from PM2.5 because their smaller lungs take in more air. | Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images The Air Quality Index can warn you about wildfire smoke and pollution in your area. Here’s a step-by-step guide. Editor’s note, June 7, 2023:Wildfires in Canada are causing widespread air quality issues across the eastern United States. Our story on the Air Quality Index, originally published on September 17, 2021, follows. The United States has faced nearly 44,000 wildfires this year alone, and altogether they have burned an area the size of New Jersey. Every one of these fires kicks up tiny particles of liquids and solids, each a fraction of the diameter of a single human hair. These particles can travel for thousands of miles and remain suspended in the air for weeks. Fires in California have polluted the skies as far away as New York City. Microscopic particles in the air, whether from wildfire smoke or other sources of air pollution such as industrial and automobile exhaust, are dangerous: Their size allows them to penetrate deep into the body, even entering the lungs and bloodstream. “It triggers some inflammation in the body that can do everything from destabilize plaques in our blood vessels and cause heart attacks, or even cause inflammation in our neurons,” said Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician who leads the climate center at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The more we look, the more we realize that pretty much no part of our body is spared from this exposure to air pollution.” Air pollution is one of the biggest modern threats to human health, and scientists have learned that small particulate matter, or PM2.5, can cause damage even in small doses. Although US air quality has improved over time due to legislation like the Clean Air Act, a recent report found that global air pollution reduces global life expectancy more than terrorism, alcohol and drug use, unsafe drinking water, HIV/AIDS, or malaria. Other research suggests wildfire smoke increases the chance of death from Covid-19: A recent study estimated that 17 percent of Covid-19 deaths in the US may be linked to long-term exposure to air pollution. In short, air quality is often a more accurate indicator of the dangers to public health than the weather forecast alone, but many people pay much less attention to it. One measurement aims to change that by distilling all of this high-stakes information: the Air Quality Index (AQI). Understanding the AQI can help you plan your day and protect yourself, just as rain in the forecast tells you to bring an umbrella with you when you leave home. “It’s a way to flag for folks the basic precautionary actions — to say, ‘The air quality is not great, I still want to go outside and do this, but I’m going to set my alarm so that in an hour I’m going to take a break and make sure I’m not running into trouble,’” Bernstein said. Here’s a step-by-step guide to understanding the importance of the AQI, including several resources from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help you track the AQI in your community. Where to look for air quality information in your area Experts consider the EPA’s AirNow website the gold standard for air monitoring in the US, and it can be a one-stop shop for understanding the AQI in and around your community. Type in your zip code, and the website will pull data from permanent air monitors in your area, 365 days a year. AirNow, which partners with state, local, and tribal agencies as well as the US Forest Service, tracks two main sources of pollution. One is ground-level ozone, which tends to be worse in the late afternoon on hot summer days and can cause lung damage and asthma attacks. The second is the main concern in wildfire smoke: particulate matter. The EPA shares AQI measurements that range from zero to 500; the higher the AQI, the greater the level of air pollution. An AQI of 75 could pose a slight health risk, while an AQI of 210 means the air is so polluted that you should stay indoors and protect yourself. The biggest drawback to the Air Quality Index is that it misses the granular picture in communities where the EPA doesn’t have sensors. Since air pollution can vary widely even over short distances — think a busy highway versus a quiet, tree-lined road — the EPA may be missing some data for the places that face the worst pollution. The EPA and US Forest Service in 2020 launched a new database that attempts to fill in some of these gaps. The Fire and Smoke Map supplements the EPA’s official measurements with temporary and crowdsourced sensors (such as low-cost monitors from a company called PurpleAir) to show current measurements for the PM2.5, the biggest threat from wildfires. The map contains a trove of information, and you don’t have to guess where it’s getting its information: The source is identified with symbols (circles for EPA monitors, squares for temporary monitors, and triangles for crowdsourced data from third-party, low-cost monitors like those from Purple Air). Click on your area to find local information, or swipe through to find past pollution measurements and forecasts for the day (whether the pollution is likely to get better or worse). So where should you start? If you’re interested in overall air quality, including ozone and PM2.5, the EPA recommends you use its AirNow website. But if you’re worried about the smoke from wildfires, look to the Fire and Smoke Map. The EPA’s mobile app, also called AirNow, has both. A step-by-step guide to using the AQI Let’s say you open the AirNow app and type in your zip code to check your community’s air pollution forecast. Maybe you live in California, which has been plagued by historic fires. If you live in an affected community — say, Northern California’s Weaverville — you’ll find a reading for PM2.5, or particulates smaller than 2.5 microns. You can click through for details for more guidance and information about what agency is supplying the data. AirNow app Wildfires are causing unhealthy air in Weaverville, California. AirNow app Click on “details” in the AirNow app for more guidance on the steps you should take. But there’s more. Say you want to see more detail on the wildfire smoke in the area. On the app, click the smoke symbol, and that brings you directly to the Fire and Smoke Map. On the AirNow website, you can click the red Fire and Smoke icon. AQI numbers are color-coded from “good” to “hazardous”: The higher the number, the worse the pollution and the darker the colors. These ratings account for whichever pollutant (ozone or PM2.5) is highest at the time, and can help you figure out the kinds of activities that are safe to do outside. The people who have to pay the closest attention to daily air pollution are sensitive groups: young children and teenagers, pregnant people, people with underlying conditions such as heart and lung disease or asthma, and the elderly. Green (0–50): According to the EPA, this means anyone is good to go outside because the air is safe to breathe. Yellow (51–100): The air quality is generally considered okay, except forthe most sensitive groups. This is a good time to watch for symptoms like shortness of breath or coughing; if you’re experiencing this, it may be time to limit outdoor activity or strenuous exercise. Orange (101–150): Here’s where it gets trickier, because sensitive groups should proceed with more caution while the rest of the public may be just fine. Sensitive groups want to reduce heavy exertion outside or take more breaks, and people with asthma and heart disease should watch for symptoms. When you enter your zip code on the website, you can scroll through for information and maps on ozone and PM2.5. This resource is a little different than the Fire and Smoke Map, represented by the red button. Red (151–200): The air is unhealthy for everyone. Sensitive groups want to avoid being active outdoors, while everyone else should reduce their time outdoors. Purple (201–300): The air is very unhealthy for everyone. Everyone should consider moving their activities inside. Maroon (301 and above): This is the highest level — hazardous — and anyone can be at risk. Everyone should avoid physical activity outdoors, and if you’re in that sensitive category, you should remain indoors. The trickiest aspect of the color-coded system is knowing how to act in those middle yellow and orange ranges. It’s ultimately a judgment call that should factor in your overall health, based on any risk factors you may have and how you feel. “If you’re really coming through a rough stretch with your lung disease, today is probably not the best day — even if it’s yellow — for you to be working outside,” Bernstein, the pediatrician, said as one example. “If someone has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and their symptoms have been really well-controlled for a while, if it’s a yellow or even orange day, it might be: ‘Let’s go outside for a fixed amount of time.’” What to do when the air quality is bad On a bad air day, it’s important to take additional precautions besides just limiting your time outdoors. Here are some recommendations from the EPA and public health experts: Use HEPA air filters indoors and avoid smoking or using your fireplace; you might even want to reconsider candles. Wearing an N95 mask, if you have one, outdoors can protect the medically sensitive or people in the worst zones because it filters out PM2.5. Cloth masks do not work for filtering fine particulate matter. No heavy exercise outdoors on days that are particularly bad. Consider spending less time outdoors altogether, and getting away from busy roads if you are able. Don’t dose yourself unnecessarily with pollution: Bernstein says people do this in ways they don’t realize. They might idle their cars in an attached garage or buy fragranced and ozone-forming products, or run wood- or gas-burning stoves that pollute indoor air. Consider talking with your doctor. Bernstein acknowledges that medical providers can be “wildly undereducated on the subject,” though the CDC has programs to train medical professionals on how to use AirNow. Your lungs and heart really depend on what we do about climate change Not everyone has control over their outdoor activities, and some communities and outdoor workers face astronomically higher risk from pollution than others. White Americans contribute more to air pollution through their consumption of goods and services, yet Black and Hispanic Americans tend to live in neighborhoods with lower air quality —one reason for the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on these communities. While more informed citizens and health care providers would go a long way in taking sensible precautions — in the same way we’d wear masks to reduce Covid-19 risk in public spaces — it isn’t enough on its own. The scope of people affected by air pollution is hard to fathom: A Harvard study published in Environmental Research Letters in February found that global air pollution from fossil fuels was responsible for one in five deaths worldwide in 2018. That’s about 8 million people, roughly the population of New York City. These numbers suggest the problem of air pollution is bigger than any individual’s choices. The United States passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, and the air is cleaner today than it was in the 1970s, when the environmental movement to regulate pollution was in its infancy. Just as it took decades to appreciate the benefits then, the quality of air we’ll breathe for decades to come depends on what we do about it now. The United States can cut pollution by cutting reliance on fossil fuels. This would expose fewer people to the other types of pollutants that come from burning and refining coal, oil, and gas. It would also help prevent runaway global warming, which is causing lengthier and more damaging wildfire seasons. “My hopeful vision of the future is that we make this transition off of fossil fuels, and most folks are going to have very little exposure to air pollution for much of the year in the United States,” Bernstein told Vox. “That would be a much better future than all of us needing to have yet another thing to worry about on a daily basis — because we don’t have to. We actually have a choice.”
1 d
Finally, a solution to plastic pollution that’s not just recycling
Israel Sebastian/Getty Images Countries are negotiating a new global treaty to drastically reduce the plastic waste that has been poisoning the world. Plastic recycling doesn’t work, no matter how diligently you wash out your peanut butter container. Only about 15 percent of plastic waste is collected for recycling worldwide, and of that, about half ends up discarded. That means just 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled. The rest — some 91 percent of all plastic waste — ends up in landfills, incinerators, or as trash in the environment. One report estimated that 11 million metric tons of plastic trash leaked into the ocean in 2016, and that number could triple by 2040 as the global population rises and lower-income countries develop. Plastic is now simply everywhere: at the deepest depths of the ocean, on the tallest mountains, in hundreds of species of wildlife, and even in human placentas. Bhushan Koyande/Hindustan Times via Getty Images A man walks on a plastic-covered shore in Mumbai, India, on May 31. It’s hard to imagine meaningful solutions to a problem of such epic proportions. Campaigns to ban things like plastic straws almost seem like a joke when compared to the staggering amounts of waste produced by everything else we use — including the plastic cups those straws go in. Now, however, there might actually be a reason to feel hopeful. Late last year, world leaders, scientists, and advocates started working on a global, legally binding treaty under the United Nations to end plastic waste. The second round of negotiations concluded last week in Paris with a plan to produce an initial draft of the deal. This treaty could be huge. Although it will take months of negotiating for any of the details to become clear, the agreement — set to be finalized by the end of 2024 — will require countries to do far more than just fix their recycling systems. Negotiators will discuss a menu of options including a cap on overall plastic production, bans on certain materials and products including many single-use plastics, and incentives to grow an industry around reusable items. This treaty could literally transform entire chunks of the global economy. As with any global deal, an ambitious agreement will face several roadblocks, some of which have already appeared. Certain countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the US, for example, are pushing for voluntary terms that would allow them to continue investing in their petrochemical industries (plastic is a petrochemical). Then again, the fact that global talks are happening at all is in itself a big deal and reveals a shift in the politics around waste. “There’s a true willingness to tackle this problem,” said Erin Simon, vice president and head of plastic waste at the World Wildlife Fund, a large environmental group. “We’ve never seen so much progress.” Here’s what a global plastic treaty could do, and why anti-waste advocates are so hopeful. Lan Zitao/VCG via Getty Images A worker at a PVC pipe factory in China’s Sichuan Province on November 30, 2022. The plastic treaty will target the root of the problem Even if recycling weren't such a failure, it wouldn’t put an end to plastic waste. Many items can’t be — or are not meant to be — recycled. There’s no real way to fix the plastic problem without simply producing less of it, said Nicky Davies, executive director of the Plastic Solutions Fund, a group that funds projects to end plastic pollution. “The first thing we need to do is turn off the tap,” Davies said. That’s why this treaty is so significant: By conception, the agreement is meant to focus on the design and production of plastics, not just on what happens to plastic items after we use them. In other words, the treaty targets the full life cycle of plastics. What does that mean in practice? The agreement could, for example, include an overall cap on plastic. This would be a global target for reducing the production of new, virgin plastic (which has no recycled content). Such a target could mandate that, by a certain year, total annual plastic production cannot exceed the amount of plastic produced in some baseline year. It’d be kind of like targets to slash fossil fuel production in order to curb climate change — but for plastic polymers. Bye-bye plastic takeout containers, probably Regardless of whether or not the treaty includes an explicit limit on plastic production, it will almost certainly contain bans or restrictions on some materials. Certain chemicals used in plastics are especially problematic and could be targeted by bans. Some flame retardants, for example, are linked to cancers and endocrine disruption; they can also make plastics hard to recycle. A number of other additives and materials are similarly dangerous to humans or ecosystems, or they make recycling difficult, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and various kinds of PFAS (the so-called forever chemicals). The treaty may also ban or restrict a whole bunch of common, problematic products — namely, packaging and other single-use items, such as cups and cutlery. These are an enormous part of the plastic problem, said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, an environmental advocacy group. Roughly 40 percent of all plastic waste comes from packaging alone, and nearly two-thirds of it is from plastics that have a lifespan of fewer than five years, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “These are materials that come into people’s lives that are often unnoticed, and they have useful lives measured in minutes or moments or at best months,” Muffett told Vox. Getty Images A biker in Neihuang, China, carries balloons to sell during a bout of heavy smog. The most immediate bans or restrictions on single-use plastics, researchers say, should apply to products that are most likely to leak into the environment and cause harm and yet are relatively unnecessary. These include takeaway containers, chip bags, balloons, cotton swabs, disposable e-cigarettes, and tea bags. (A number of environmental organizations including WWF have lists of products that the treaty should prioritize.) Speaking of unnecessary: The treaty may also restrict the use of certain microplastics. These are plastic pieces that are under 5 millimeters in length, which are either deliberately put in some products like face wash or are emitted unintentionally by things like car tires and clothing. Scientists have found them everywhere they look including in our blood and lungs, water bottles, and Antarctic snow. Restricting these sorts of plastics isn’t a far-fetched idea. Several US states already ban some plastic bags, including New York and California. The US, Canada, the UK, and other countries, meanwhile, prohibit companies from selling shower gels and many other personal care products with plastic “microbeads” in them. And the EU — home to some of the world’s strictest plastic regulations — prohibits a wide number of single-use items from entering the market, including plastic cutlery and straws. Yet these bans are not global, they’re not always enforced, and they don’t go far enough, experts say. That’s where the treaty could help. Building out the “reuse economy” Plastic is widespread for a few obvious reasons. It’s lightweight, durable, and easily shaped, making it useful for a large number of applications. Plastic is also incredibly cheap (even if government subsidies help offset some of the costs). Should countries try to phase out single-use plastics, whether by a treaty or not, a key question is: What will replace it? In some cases, other materials like paper might be appropriate, although, of course, they can produce waste as well. A more sustainable solution, Davies said, is to build out what she calls the reuse economy: a system in which many single-use items, like plastic cups, are replaced by containers that are used over and over again. This model offers clear value where consumers buy and eat food in the same place, such as food courts, movie theaters, or music festivals. In a reuse economy, vendors would give customers a reusable cup, which they would then place in a bin before leaving the venue, not unlike how you return trays at some food courts. There’d be central facilities on site to clean the cups and make them available to the next customer. (That means dishwashing would have to become more widespread.) Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images A drain in Miami Beach, Florida, clogged with plastic waste. Transforming some other parts of the economy is more challenging, including the food delivery industry. Consider, however, that restaurants often use the same kinds of plastic food containers across large cities like New York. Imagine if those containers were meant to be truly reusable; instead of throwing them out or recycling them, consumers could return them (via some kind of bin, for example) to a central system that cleans the containers and restocks them at restaurants. Obviously, this would require major investments in infrastructure by governments, private funders, and companies — not to mention some changes in behavior among consumers — but there are plenty of examples of these sorts of reuse systems already working successfully. They’ve been around for decades. In Europe and parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, restaurants and other retailers commonly sell beer and soda in refillable glass containers. Customers will typically get a small deposit back when they return those items. (An organization called Upstream maintains a list of reuse policies in the US and abroad.) The treaty could help fuel this approach by mandating global targets related to reusing containers, some of which already exist at a country level (in France and elsewhere). For example, it could set a minimum percentage of drinks that must be sold in reusable containers. The treaty could also help set standards for what a good reusable system looks like and define what “reuse” actually means — considering that many plastic bags and other disposable items say they’re “reusable” even though most of us throw them out. Davies says the reuse economy is essential to fixing the plastic problem — as essential as renewable energy is for curbing climate change. “We actually need to build the reuse economy in the same way as we have built the renewable energy economy,” Davies said. Better recycling will help, but it’s only a small part of the solution The treaty won’t spell the end of recycling. Plenty of plastics aren’t easily cleaned or reused by other people, such as toothbrushes or plastics used in hospitals, so countries will still need recycling — but it requires major improvements. Some cities and countries lack sufficient, conveniently located recycling bins or facilities to process plastic. Even where that infrastructure does exist, recycling runs into all kinds of problems. Plastics in a bin of recyclables typically contain a slew of polymers, dyes, and other chemicals that don’t necessarily mix well together or, when combined, form low-quality plastic, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a research organization. Some of those chemicals can also make the recycling process itself unsafe for waste workers, Davies said. “Today’s plastic recycling system is failing us,” authors of the Pew report wrote. Beyond eliminating harmful chemicals in plastics, a key solution is to encourage or mandate that companies design for recycling from the beginning. That means phasing out dyes and other additives that make recycled plastic worth less, using fewer types of polymers that can contaminate recycling streams, and so on. Better labeling is important, too: You shouldn’t have to spend time Googling to figure out how to recycle something. To encourage recycling, cities, and countries can also build out what are called “deposit return systems,” or DRS. In these schemes, customers pay a deposit when they buy a drink in a to-go bottle and get it back if they return the container (you may have seen these return machines by the entrance of some grocery stores). The treaty could mandate that countries require DRS for certain kinds of plastic containers. Getty Images A customer places bottles in a recycling machine to receive her deposit in a grocery story in Slovakia. The treaty could also set a minimum percentage for the amount of recycled plastic in a given product. That would make recycled plastic more valuable and, in turn, encourage more recycling. Again, such targets are not unprecedented: The EU requires that, by 2025, PET plastic drink bottles are made with at least 25 percent recycled plastic. (Treaty negotiators will consider a wide range of other ideas, such as eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels, setting standards for landfilling plastic, including those pertaining to the health of workers, and weeding out misleading claims about compostable or biodegradable plastics.) What countries will fight about Treaty negotiations have only just begun, yet some issues are already a source of tension. Perhaps the biggest one is whether targets under the treaty should be globally mandated — and apply to all countries — or voluntary and set by each nation individually. A group of countries including all members of the EU, Japan, and Chile, known as the high ambition coalition, is pushing for global targets, whereas the US, Saudi Arabia, and other big plastic-producing nations are advocating for national voluntary targets. (Those voluntary targets would be similar to those under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which set the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to combat climate change.) “The number one thing I want is global rules,” said Simon of WWF. “Plastic pollution is so integrated into all of our lives, and through these massive world markets. If we continue to address it in a fragmented way, we will never be successful.” Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images A blue plastic polymer inside a factory near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A number of other core issues will likely divide countries along similar lines, such as whether the treaty should cap virgin plastic production and what specific materials it should ban. Generally, major oil-producing nations and other petrochemical interests, such as chemical companies, like to talk up the benefits of recycling instead of taking steps to curb plastic production. Funding will almost certainly be a divisive issue, as well. There’s a common tension during negotiations for global environmental treaties between wealthy and poor nations. In this case, lower-income countries are likely to argue that they should pay less — or be paid — to implement the treaty because they’ve contributed relatively little to the problem of plastic waste (and in some cases suffer most from it). Could this treaty really work? Delegates from 175 countries finished up the last round of negotiations in Paris with a clear objective: To develop a draft of the plastic treaty before November, when they’ll meet again, in Nairobi, Kenya, for round three. The idea is to discuss the terms of the treaty in detail then, using the text (which they call a “zero draft”) as a starting point. While UN treaty processes are often confusing and bogged down by bureaucracy, they’re one of our best defenses against global crises. And plastic pollution is indeed a global crisis. It’s everywhere — in our forests, our mountains, our oceans, our wildlife, our bodies, our children’s bodies. At least 85 percent of all marine waste is plastic. Hundreds of chemicals in plastics pose potential risks to human health. It remains unclear whether negotiators will be able to craft an ambitious treaty. Then there will be questions about implementation. But the good news is that something similar has been done before, albeit on a smaller scale. In 1987, nearly 200 countries agreed to a global deal called the Montreal Protocol designed to phase out chemicals called CFCs that were found in all sorts of products, from aerosol cans to refrigerators, which had put a hole in Earth’s ozone layer. The treaty worked. Today, 99 percent of ozone-destroying chemicals have been phased out and the ozone hole is almost fully repaired. While the plastic problem is much bigger, global rules to phase out harmful materials can work. “This has been done before,” Muffett said. If world leaders take the problem of plastic pollution seriously, he said, “fundamental transformation is very, very possible.”
1 d
What to know about the major dam destruction in Ukraine
A screen grab captured from a video shows the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant after a blast occurred in the plant, which is in the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine’s Kherson, on June 6, 2023. The explosion unleashed floodwaters across the war zone. | Zelenskyy Social Media Account / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Did Russia do it? A large dam on the Dnipro River, in southern Ukraine, has been destroyed, leading to major flooding and putting thousands at risk of another catastrophe along the war’s front lines. Right now, both Ukraine and Russia are accusing the other of attacking the Nova Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant, which sits about 20 miles from the city of Kherson and creates a reservoir that cools Europe’s largest nuclear plant. Ukraine blamed Russian “terrorists” for the explosion. “This is just one Russian act of terrorism,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Telegram. “This is just one Russian war crime. Now Russia is guilty of brutal ecocide. Any comments are superfluous.” Russia, meanwhile, accused Ukraine of staging an attack to cut off water to the Crimean peninsula and to distract from the start of its counteroffensive, which may finally be underway. “Apparently, this sabotage is also connected with the fact that, having started large-scale offensive actions two days ago, now the Ukrainian armed forces are not achieving their goals — these offensive actions are faltering,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. Satellite images from before and after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine. Planet Labs— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 6, 2023 US and Western officials have also not made any definite conclusions, though most are leaning toward Russia as the likely suspect, especially given its history of targeting Ukrainian energy and civilian infrastructure intended to create humanitarian emergencies. Of course, Western leaders have been wrong before in attributing attacks to Russia, as with the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline, which is why Western and NATO officials said they’re not yet making definitive conclusions. Russia also has controlled the Nova Kakhovka dam since the early days of the war, which means, even if this was somehow an accident or unintentional explosion, it’s happening on its watch. Ukraine has also been warning since last year that Russia had mined the dam, and previously claimed Moscow had plans to destroy it ahead of its retreat from Kherson last fall. And the dam explosion is happening against an uptick in Ukrainian attacks that have some Western officials believing Ukraine’s counteroffensive is underway. Though a lot of that fighting is currently happening in the east, away from the dam, a disaster could tie up Ukrainian resources and potentially make it more difficult for troops to advance in the future. Yasin Demirci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam is a massive disaster — now and in the future The Kakhovka reservoir and power plant was built in the Soviet era in 1956 and holds about 18 million tons of water — about the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The levels in the Dnipro River had been at record-high water levels in recent days, so the possibility of mismanagement or some sort of accident can’t be ruled out, although that is harder to square with the scale of the damage (and reports of explosions). And the dam is also right along the front lines of the war and had faced shelling and damage during the past year. Right now, the Dnipro is essentially the dividing line between Ukrainian and Russian forces. “This is a massive event, a huge story,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder and senior fellow at the Pacific Institute in California. “The Nova Kakhovka dam is one of the largest dams in Europe.” Early Tuesday local time, reports first emerged of a dam breach, and videos began surfacing of water rushing from the dam. The flooding immediately put communities downriver at risk, and Ukrainian authorities launched evacuation operations. Officials said about 1,300 people had been evacuated so far from Kherson city and other Ukrainian-held areas. About 80 communities total are at risk, including the city of Kherson, according to officials. According to Ukrainian officials, about 40,000 people along the banks of the Dnipro must evacuate — but that population is split between about 17,000 in Ukrainian-controlled territory and another 25,000 or so in the Russian-occupied side of the river. The Nova Kakhovka dam, a major hydroelectric power plant in southern Ukraine, was severely damaged by an explosion early Tuesday, unleashing flooding near the front lines.Ukrainian officials said the torrent of water left thousands of people at risk and complicated evacuation…— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) June 6, 2023 Russian officials, meanwhile, downplayed the emergency a bit, though evacuations have reportedly started in three Russian-controlled towns. Vladimir Saldo, the Russia-appointed governor of the Kherson region, said on Telegram that the dam breach “will not greatly affect the situation in the Kherson region. Even a large-scale evacuation of people will not be required.” Russia-appointed Kherson oblast governor Saldo, speaking right in front of the flooded streets of Novaya Kakhovka:"Everything is fine in Novaya Kakhovka, people go about their daily business like any day"— Max Fras (@maxfras) June 6, 2023 Water was quickly rushing out of the reservoir, with the peak of the flooding expected Wednesday, around noon, according to officials, adding urgency to evacuation efforts. Ukrainian officials accused Russia of continuing to shell flood-affected areas. Beyond the immediate emergency, the dam destruction poses risks to the environment, ecology, drinking supply, and energy infrastructure — all in different and complex ways. The area near the Dnipro River is heavily mined, and flood waters could dislodge those explosives. Already there are reports of contamination of industrial chemicals in the Dnipro River. “The surrounding areas, in the Kherson region, Mykolaiv region, they rely on the water for irrigation purposes, for agricultural purposes, and of course, drinking water,” said Maksym Chepeliev, senior research economist at the Center for Global Trade Analysis, Department of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University. Another place at risk of losing access to a water supply is Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. When Russia took control, Ukraine cut off that source of water to the peninsula, but in 2022, when Russia took control of the dam, it restarted the water supply to Crimea, at substantial cost. Though most goes to agriculture and only a fraction goes to drinking water, Russian officials have already said that the canal is at risk because of the dam damage. Ukrhydroenergo, the Ukrainian state-owned operator of Ukraine’s hydroelectric plants, said that the machine hall inside the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant was completely destroyed, but so far, the threat to Ukraine’s power grid and electricity supply is pretty contained. Since the plant was seized by Russian forces in the early days of the war, it had not currently been supplying electricity to territory controlled by Ukraine, said Oleksandr Diachuk, leading researcher officer in the Department of Energy Sector Development and Forecasting at the Institute for Economics and Forecasting and the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. But that power plant isn’t the one everyone is concerned about. That distinction goes to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is about 75 miles northeast of the dam. That plant relies on water from the reservoir to cool its nuclear reactors. Ukrainian and international nuclear officials have so far said that the dam break poses no “immediate risk” to the plant. The reactors at the power plant have been shut down for many months because of the war, so although they still need to be cooled, they need less water than they would if they were active. Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a statement that the reservoir could supply water to the plant for “a few days” and that the cooling ponds were full, and could provide additional sources of water. (The power plant is also not at risk of flooding.) The Zaporizhzhia plant, in the middle of a war zone, has remained a perpetual possible catastrophe throughout the war, and while those risks have not gone away, the dam explosion’s effects on the rest of Ukraine’s power grid are likely limited. “The fact that things are under control now is great, but the situation is very volatile there [at the Zaphorizhia nuclear power plant]. And it’s just something that is an additional thing for us to worry about,” Gleick said. So what does this mean for the war Russia is waging in Ukraine? Experts I spoke to cited a litany of potential dire environmental, humanitarian, and ecological risks. Biodiversity destroyed as the reservoir empties. Chemicals leaching into the Dnipro River, polluting water that communities depend on. Those pollutants could travel downstream, into the Black Sea, and contaminate fishing waters. It could affect irrigation levels for wheat and watermelon crops in the region, further choking off food supplies. It will also force the evacuation of thousands who survived a year and a half of artillery shelling, bomb, and war. This would be a disaster at any time, but amid the conflict, it is a potential war crime, one more humanitarian crisis piled on top of all the others, and another years-long rebuilding project Ukraine must take on. “It’s not necessarily easy to mobilizeduring peacetime,” said Nickolai Denisov, deputy director of the Geneva-based Zoï Environment Network, referring to the disaster response. “During wartime, it’s even more difficult, and it definitely distracts resources from other tasks.” These kinds of disasters are omnipresent in war, but it has become something of a feature of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has systematically targeted Ukrainian infrastructure, and in this case, they had full access to the dam facility. Ukraine has engaged in sabotage efforts against Russian infrastructure, but usually on Russian soil or on strategic targets. US and Western officials have not confirmed publicly who was behind the attack, though the public statements have alluded to Russian responsibility. The US said it was aiming to declassify intelligence about the explosion soon. “All things considered, one must naturally assume that this was an aggression perpetrated by the Russian side in order to stop Ukraine’s offensive aimed at liberating its own land,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Tuesday. The timing of this likely explosion is impossible to ignore. Ukraine has been planning to mount a counteroffensive to retake territory for months, and as spring inches into summer, it now seems as if Kyiv is at least laying the groundwork for that major assault. This week, Western officials said they noticed an increase in fighting in the past few days in the east, in Donetsk, with Ukrainian stepping up artillery attacks and ground assaults, potentially to probe Russian fortifications. This isn’t close to the dam, but many Ukraine observers have long pointed to areas in the south as a possible staging point for any operation because it would allow Ukraine to cut off the “land bridge” Russia has built from occupied territories to Crimea. The area now flooded out by the dam breach could potentially have been one attack point, and now it definitely cannot be. But it also probably wasn’t going to be anyway. Russia was pretty well dug in on its side of the Dnipro, and crossing a river is not exactly an easy operation in the best of times. Ukraine’s forces are likely limited in their ability to conduct an operation like that. Which is also why, if Russia is responsible, this isn’t quite a strategic coup. The flood waters could wash away some of Russia’s fortifications in the Kherson region. And while it may consume Ukrainian resources and attention, it could do the same for Russia, which controls areas that will be affected by this catastrophe. “The motivations for both sides are lacking,” said Emil Kastehelmi, an open source intelligence and military analyst who has been following Russia’s war in Ukraine. But, Kastehelmi pointed out, that doesn’t always matter, especially when it comes to Moscow’s motivations. “As we have seen, they can make huge decisions that might not be beneficial to them. A good example is this whole war that they are waging.”
2 d
Tim Scott’s unwavering optimism about racism in America
Sen. Tim Scott announces his presidential campaign at a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina. | Allison Joyce/Getty Images The Republican presidential candidate is betting that a hopeful message will break through in 2024. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the US Senate, has made his view that America is not a racist country central to his pitch for the presidency, and on Monday, even went on The View to debate the idea. Scott’s stance on race is a central part of a strategy that differentiates him from his fellow presidential hopefuls, one centered on an optimistic vision rather than on the country’s political and cultural divides. The question is whether Scott’s optimism can break through what is already proving to be an ugly primary, with former President Donald Trump lobbing insults at his biggest rivals and some of his once-closest allies going on the attack. Scott, a senator for South Carolina, is currently at the back of the pack: He’s polling at under 2 percentage points on average, behind even right-wing activist Vivek Ramaswamy, who has never held elected office. But that hasn’t stopped Scott from staying on message. Monday, Scott told The View hosts that they had wrongfully advanced the notion “that the only way for a young African American kid to be successful in this country is to be the exception and not the rule,” adding, “That’s a dangerous, offensive, disgusting message to send.” And when pressed to acknowledge that Republican policies have hurt Black Americans, he said that “Both sides of the aisle can do a better job on the issue of race.” Scott has long pushed back against the concept of systemic racism — that racism is deeply embedded throughout society and its institutions in a way that disadvantages people of color — despite mountains of evidence to prove its existence. While he’s said he’s been subject to racial discrimination at times, including at the hands of police, he maintains that racism occurs at the individual level. More than 40 percent of Americans agree with him, according to a November 2022 survey by US News and World Report and the Harris Poll. His decision to put those views front and center in his campaign, however, is not so much aimed at running on a message about race, but about unity, said Dave Wilson, a conservative strategist based in South Carolina. “Some people are looking for a firebrand who’s going to be fighting. Others are looking for an optimistic viewpoint of America that we have been lacking for the last almost two decades of national politics,” he said. ”Right now, [Scott] is trying to pitch to America that we need to find our commonalities instead of focusing on our differences.” Does Scott’s pitch give him a path to the presidency? Scott has presented himself as living proof of the progress that America has made in allowing anyone to prosper, regardless of race or background. On the campaign trail, he describes how he came from a poor, single-parent household and went on to become the first Black senator from the South since Reconstruction: “I know America is a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression. I know it because I’ve lived it,” he said in an April video launching a committee to explore a potential 2024 run. That message hasn’t seemed to resonate with voters, at least not as of yet. Scott is among multiple candidates polling in the single digits and fighting in narrow lanes for a place on the Republican ticket. But it’s too early to write him off entirely, especially given that he has proven to be a prolific fundraiser and he’s well-liked compared to other Republican presidential hopefuls, said Chip Felkel, a GOP strategist based in South Carolina. He has a net favorability rating of +7 percentage points, compared to Trump’s -1 rating, according to a May Harvard CAPS/Harris poll. “If he has the money to stay viable till he gets to South Carolina, maybe there’s been enough carnage and enough people have not made the cut by then that he could actually make a dent,” he said. “The question is, can he convince people of his viability on a national stage? He’s doing the right things, but I think he’s got to catch lightning in a bottle.” Going on The View and addressing his critics head-on in a public forum is an example of Scott “doing the right things,” strategists told Vox, given that he’ll need to earn the respect of GOP voters to move up in the polls. “Conservatives like people who are willing to go into the lion’s den and make the case for their positions,” said Felkel. “His willingness to go there and have that dialogue is what I think we’re missing.” Even if Scott doesn’t win the nomination, he would be in contention for vice president, Wilson said, and performances like his segment on The View are likely to help his supporters make a case for him in that role. “There are a lot of people right now who are vying for the vice presidency,” Wilson said. “I think Tim Scott brings optimism to the race. He also brings a level of experience. No matter which spot he would be on the ticket, it would be a strong ticket for Republicans.”
2 d