Noord-Korea: gevoelens van 'wanhoop' over relatie met VS

De hoop op betere banden met de Verenigde Staten is in Noord-Korea inmiddels uitgegroeid tot gevoelens van "wanhoop". Dat heeft minister Ri Son-gwon van Buitenlandse Zaken van Noord-Korea bekendgemaakt.
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Kamala Harris’s controversial record on criminal justice, explained
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at Howard University after announcing her campaign for president. | Al Drago/Getty Images Harris has characterized herself as a reformer. But some critics disagree. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has earned the reputation of a rising star in the Democratic Party, most recently becoming former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate in the presidential election. But Harris has also faced questions over her record on criminal justice issues — a record that’s led some critics to describe her not as a progressive reformer but as a relic of a “tough on crime” era going back to the 1990s and 2000s. A generation after Democrats embraced “tough on crime” policies that swelled prison populations, progressive activists are pushing to make the criminal justice system less punitive and racist — and polls show a majority of Democrats support such efforts. Harris has argued that her views align with the new progressive movement. But her record in California, where she was a prosecutor, district attorney, and state attorney general before representing the state in the US Senate, has come under harsh scrutiny and debate since she launched her own presidential campaign in 2019. Harris argues that she’s fought to reverse incarceration, scale back the war on drugs, and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But as her star has risen nationally — she’s had several viral moments questioning President Donald Trump’s nominees in the Senate — those more familiar with her criminal justice record, particularly on the left, have increasingly voiced their skepticism. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) rides the Senate subway before a news conference about legislation she is introducing to reunify immigrant families at the US Capitol on July 17, 2018, in Washington, DC. “In her career, Ms. Harris did not barter or trade to get the support of more conservative law-and-order types; she gave it all away,” wrote Lara Bazelon, a law professor and former director for the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, in a New York Times op-ed. Harris’s supporters argue that these criticisms sell her short, missing the times she was ahead of the country and her party on criminal justice issues — such as when she implemented prison diversion programs as district attorney and a “first-of-its-kind” racial bias training for police officers. “Kamala Harris has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability,” Lily Adams, a spokesperson for Harris, previously told me. Harris, as part of her previous presidential campaign, also released a criminal justice reform plan that seeks to scale back incarceration, end the death penalty and solitary confinement, ban private prisons, and get rid of cash bail. Biden also backs an aggressive criminal justice reform plan, despite his own mixed record on criminal justice issues as well. A close examination of Harris’s record shows it’s filled with contradictions. She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings. But what seem like contradictions may reflect a balancing act. Harris’s parents worked on civil rights causes, and she came from a background well aware of the excesses of the criminal justice system — but in office, she had to play the role of a prosecutor and California’s lawyer. She started in an era when “tough on crime” politics were popular across party lines — but she rose to national prominence as criminal justice reform started to take off nationally. She had an eye on higher political office as support for criminal justice reform became de rigueur for Democrats — but she still had to work as California’s top law enforcement official. Her race and gender likely made this balancing act even tougher. In the US, studies have found that more than 90 percent of elected prosecutors are white and more than 80 percent are male. As a black woman, Harris stood out — inviting scrutiny and skepticism, especially by people who may hold racist stereotypes about how black people view law enforcement or sexist views about whether women are “tough” enough for the job. Still, the result is the same: As she became more nationally visible, Harris was less known as a progressive prosecutor, as she’d been earlier in her career, and more a reform-lite or even anti-reform attorney general. Now critics have labeled her a “cop” — a sellout for a broken criminal justice system. How much all of this is a liability for Harris, as a nominee for vice president, remains to be seen, as the Democratic ticket tries to balance support from progressives who have called to end mass incarceration and “defund the police” with support from moderates who may prefer a candidate with “law and order” credentials. How it plays out could help determine whether Biden and Harris can defeat Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in November. Harris as a “progressive prosecutor” From the beginning of Harris’s career in the criminal justice system, she said she saw herself as a progressive working within a system she wanted to change — “at the table where the decisions are made,” she told the New York Times Magazine in 2016. She started out working at prosecutors’ offices in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then became San Francisco’s district attorney, the top prosecutor for the city, in 2004. In 2011, she became California’s attorney general, the top law enforcement official in the state. She held that position until 2017, when she became a US senator for California. Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Kamala Harris celebrates winning her Senate race at her rally in downtown on November 8, 2016, in Los Angeles. In her more recent memoir, The Truths We Hold, Harris described how she saw her role: “The job of a progressive prosecutor is to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard, to see and address the causes of crime, not just their consequences, and to shine a light on the inequality and unfairness that lead to injustice. It is to recognize that not everyone needs punishment, that what many need, quite plainly, is help.” It reflects a view embraced by many progressives in the criminal justice reform movement: that the US puts far too many people — particularly people of color — in prison, typically for way too long, and without doing enough to fight the “root causes” of crime. Parts of Harris’s record match that rhetoric. In 2004, as district attorney of San Francisco, she refused to seek the death penalty against a man convicted of shooting police officer Isaac Espinoza. She faced opposition from fellow Democrats; Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called for the death penalty at the officer’s funeral. But Harris didn’t budge — an act of principle that cost her key political allies (as she received almost no support from police groups during her first run for attorney general in 2010). Harris also pushed for more systemic reforms. Her most successful program as district attorney, “Back on Track,” allowed first-time drug offenders, including drug dealers, to get a high school diploma and a job instead of prison time. Adams, Harris’s spokesperson, noted that the program started in 2005, “when most prosecutors were using a ‘tough on crime’ approach.” The climate at the time was far less open to progressive criminal justice policy. The year before, presidential candidate John Kerry had run, in part, on hiring more cops, adopting a “zero tolerance” approach to gangs, and “cracking down on drug trafficking.” Crime wasn’t a major issue in the 2004 presidential election, but Kerry’s platform was the legacy of the 1980s and ’90s, when Republicans and Democrats — including President Bill Clinton — competed to see who could be “tough on crime.” “When she became district attorney, no one was talking about progressive prosecutors,” Tim Silard, who worked under Harris at the San Francisco district attorney’s office, previously told me. “She was absolutely an outlier within the California District Attorneys Association, [and] got some pushback and criticism from there.” Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images California Attorney General-elect Kamala Harris holds a press conference to discuss the attorney general race in Sacramento on November 30, 2010. In one instance — her handling of California’s “three strikes” law — Harris was arguably ahead of the time. Under the law, someone who committed a third felony could go to prison for 25 years to life, even if the third felony was a nonviolent crime. But Harris required that the San Francisco district attorney’s office only charge for a third strike if the felony was a serious or violent crime. California voters in 2004, the year that Harris took office, rejected a ballot initiative to implement a similar reform statewide — though the ballot proposal had some problems, leading to Harris’s own opposition. It wasn’t until 2012 that voters approved the change. “There’s been incredibly rapid change in public opinion, in attention to criminal justice,” Silard said, citing his decades-long experience in the criminal justice system and current experience as president of the reform-minded Rosenberg Foundation. “Bringing a reverse lens to that is not fair, and also doesn’t recognize folks who were courageous at that time.” Still, Harris did embrace some “tough” policies while in the district attorney’s office, such as an anti-truancy program that targeted parents of kids who skipped school and threatened them with prosecution and punishment to push them to get their children to class. As she geared up to run for California attorney general in 2010, Harris positioned herself as a criminal justice reformer, focusing on improving support for people leaving prison, and published a book in 2009, Smart on Crime, on criminal justice reform. By this point, Harris wasn’t so much ahead of her time as she was in step with it. Criminal justice reform had spread nationally: Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, effectively reducing penalties for crack cocaine. States, facing budget constraints from housing so many prisoners, started to roll back punishments for nonviolent crimes — even in conservative states like Texas and South Carolina. And books like 2010’s The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander drew attention, particularly among white progressives, to a criminal justice system plagued by vast racial disparities. (Harris’s 2009 book, by contrast, was “largely colorblind” and “mentions racial bias in policing just twice,” Molly Hensley-Clancy noted at BuzzFeed.) The progressive prosecutor has also in recent years become much more common, exemplified by Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Cook County (Chicago), and several others. That changing context is part of why many of Harris’s next moves, as California attorney general, disappointed some progressives and criminal justice reformers, including some of her former supporters. Harris’s mixed record as attorney general Based on Harris’s record, supporters easily could have expected her to come into the California Department of Justice as attorney general and really shake things up. But that didn’t happen: Her office’s handling of over-incarceration, the death penalty, and wrongly incarcerated people were among the several issues in which Harris by and large maintained the status quo. She implemented some reforms: She expanded her “Back on Track” program to other parts of the state. After Black Lives Matter took off, she introduced and expanded what her office described as “first-of-its-kind training” to address racial bias as well as procedural justice — earning praise from local newspapers. She made the California Department of Justice the first statewide agency to require body cameras. And she launched OpenJustice, a platform that, among other data, allows the public to track reported killings by police officers. But Harris also allowed many parts of the Justice Department to essentially operate as they long had, which at times led to what many now see as major injustices. In many cases, this led to her office making decisions that Harris, under scrutiny, tried to distance herself from. For example, Harris’s office fought to release fewer prisoners, even after the US Supreme Court found that overcrowding in California prisons was so bad that it amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. At one point, her lawyers argued that the state couldn’t release some prisoners because it would deplete its pool for prison labor — but Harris quickly clarified that she was not aware her office was going with that argument until it was reported by media. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at a news conference on May 17, 2013, in Los Angeles. Or consider Harris’s handling of appeals for release by innocent people in prison. In one case, her office argued against Daniel Larsen, who was proven innocent by the Innocence Project, because, Harris’s office claimed, he filed his petition for release far too late after a legal deadline. The court disagreed, allowing Larsen’s release in 2013. (In the New York Times, Bazelon listed several more such cases.) Harris’s supporters argue that Harris likely wasn’t closely involved in these cases because Justice Department policy didn’t require state lawyers to seek approval from the attorney general. As Harris said at a primary campaign event, “There are cases … where there were folks that made a decision in my office and they had not consulted me, and I wish they had.” But Harris could have changed department policy and become more hands-on in pushing reform, if she was willing to risk a potential backlash from the people under her. Then there’s the death penalty. Harris remains personally opposed to the death penalty, and earlier in her career, she’d been willing to incur political backlash by refusing to seek it in 2004. But as attorney general, she told voters she would enforce capital punishment. And she did: In 2014, she appealed a judge’s decision that deemed California’s death penalty system unconstitutional. Harris didn’t have to do this. In another case, she declined to defend Proposition 8, which prohibited same-sex marriage. But in office, she seemed to avoid antagonizing the rank and file — which opposition to the death penalty and other “tough on crime” policies could do. She often described herself as one of them, calling herself California’s “top cop” and writing in her 2009 book that liberals need to move beyond “biases against law enforcement.” Harris also overlooked and defended law enforcement officials accused of misconduct. In one such case, a state prosecutor, Robert Murray, falsified a confession, using it to threaten the defendant with life in prison. After a court threw out the indictment, Harris’s office appealed it, dismissing the misconduct because it did not involve physical violence. Harris also resisted some attempts to hold police accountable for shootings, including a bill that would have required the attorney general’s office to investigate killings by police and efforts to create statewide standards for police-worn body cameras. She also defied calls to have her office quickly investigate certain police shootings in California. “There’s lots of resistance [to reform], both within your own ranks and then from the cops and their allies,” Silard told me. And acting differently in these situations could have upset the rank and file — after Harris narrowly won her election in 2010 by less than 1 percentage point, without the support of most law enforcement groups. But her inaction angered activists. “How many more people need to die before she steps in?” an activist and former supporter, Phelicia Jones, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2016, regarding police shootings. Jones went on, directing her comments to Harris: “We don’t even know that you care. You have turned your back on the people who got you to where you are.” In the Senate, Harris has championed criminal justice reform Since her Senate campaign in 2016, Harris has tried to avoid the faulty parts of her record, and instead emphasized the reforms she’s supported and implemented over the years. She has adopted sweeping rhetoric about the criminal justice system, arguing that it needs to be systemically changed. Her presidential primary campaign website characterized her as “for the people,” “speaking truth, demanding justice,” and “fighting to fix our broken criminal justice system.” Consider one of Harris’s common lines: She’s described her support for criminal justice reform as pushing for a better return on investment, pointing out that US prisons see recidivism rates as high as 70 percent or more. As Harris told the New York Times Magazine in 2016, “If we were talking about any other system where you have a failure rate of about 70 percent, the investors would say, at the very least, do a wholesale reconstruction, if not shut it down.” This is strong rhetoric — which suggests that Harris’s ultimate aim isn’t to merely tinker with the criminal justice system, but to seriously transform it. This aligns Harris far more with where Democrats are today, as Black Lives Matter, ACLU types, and criminal justice reformers push the party to the left on this issue. In the Senate, Harris has consistently backed reforms, although her leadership role on these issues hasn’t been as extensive as that of some other senators. She introduced a bail reform bill with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would encourage states to reform or replace their bail systems. This is a big part of the criminal justice system: By most estimates, hundreds of thousands of people are in jail right now, before they’ve been convicted of a crime, just because they can’t afford to pay their bail. A lot of advocacy work is now dedicated to getting rid of money bail almost entirely, which some places, like Washington, DC, have done with success. But the bill hasn’t moved far in Congress — although it’s now part of Harris’s presidential campaign platform. In a team-up with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC), Harris also introduced a bill that would for the first time make lynching a federal crime, which has long been a goal for racial justice and civil rights activists. A final version of the bill is currently held up in the Senate. Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) speak during the fourth day of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 7, 2018. Harris also voted for the First Step Act, the most significant federal criminal justice reform bill to get through Congress in decades — although she tweeted at length about the bill’s shortcomings. She signed on to Booker’s marijuana legalization bill, introduced her own bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, and voted to legalize hemp. More recently, she also backed more aggressive reforms to US policing, telling Meghan McCain on The View that the country is “reimagining how we do public safety in America” and speaking favorably of shifting resources from law enforcement to addressing the “root causes” of crime, such as poverty and mental health issues. Other Democratic senators, though, have gone a bit further on criminal justice issues. Booker, for one, introduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act — an effort, however flawed, to get states to systematically reduce incarceration rates. Harris has yet to introduce bills that are just as sweeping, or any systemic reform bills besides her bail proposal, even as she uses rhetoric decrying the criminal justice system as a whole. Harris’s limited role to this point is perhaps expected for a junior senator, but it may be disappointing for people expecting more from a presidential contender with roots in the criminal justice system and who promised something closer to “a wholesale reconstruction” than tinkering at the edges. But at least when the issue comes to a vote, she’s so far consistently been on the reform side in the Senate — and has made support for reform central to her message as she’s run for Senate, then president, and now vice president. Progressives will have to weigh what Harris is saying now versus parts of her past The question Harris now faces: Are the reforms she pushed for as a prosecutor and attorney general, and her consistently progressive work in the Senate, enough to satisfy progressives and criminal justice reformers? The concern here isn’t merely figuring out whether Harris is an honest person. A constant worry in criminal justice work is what would happen if, say, the crime rate started to rise once again. In such a scenario, there would be considerably more pressure on lawmakers — and it’d at least be easier for them — to go back to “tough on crime” rhetoric, framing more aggressive policing and higher incarceration rates in a favorable way. Given that the central progressive claim is that these policies are racist and, based on the research, ineffective for fighting crime in the first place, any potential for backsliding in this area once it becomes politically convenient is very alarming. This happened before. From the 1960s through the ’90s, crime and drug use were skyrocketing in the US. Americans were much more likely, especially in the early ’90s, to say that crime was the most important problem facing the country at the time. That drove lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, to try to find solutions that they could sell to the public — and they by and large landed on a more punitive criminal justice system. But any link to those “tough on crime” policies now could hurt Harris — and Biden — politically. According to a 2016 Vox/Morning Consult survey, around two-thirds of Democrats and a majority of all voters support removing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, reducing sentences for drug offenses in general, sentencing more people to probation and community service instead of prison, and adopting a national law decriminalizing marijuana. Other polls have found even higher support for criminal justice reforms among Democrats and other voters. In response to the criticisms, Harris said during the first day of her presidential campaign that she took “responsibility” for some of the problems: “The bottom line is the buck stops with me, and I take full responsibility for what my office did.” In response to a question about her office’s efforts when she was attorney general, on behalf of the California Department of Corrections, to stop a transgender inmate from getting gender-affirming surgery, Harris elaborated further. “I was the attorney general of California for two terms, and I had a host of clients that I was obligated to defend and represent,” she said. “I couldn’t fire my clients and there were unfortunately situations that occurred where my clients took positions that were contrary to my beliefs.” More broadly, Harris has explained that she rejects what she describes as “the false choice” between criminal justice reform and supporting law enforcement. “I will never make an excuse for saying this, or an apology for saying this: One human being kills another human being, a woman is raped, a child is molested, there needs to be serious consequence and accountability,” she said during a one-hour interview for her memoir in January 2019. “And I’m always going to say that, and I’m going to say America has a problem with mass incarceration, we have been locking up black and brown men in particular, [and] we have built-in biases that are implicit and explicit that need to be addressed.” And after she announced her presidential bid, Harris announced a criminal justice reform plan that would enact an ambitious list of policy changes to scale back mass incarceration, “tough on crime” policing, and the war on drugs. Some argue that Harris might not ever be redeemed, because the past job she took at the time she took it just doesn’t line up with progressive values today. As Briahna Gray, who worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign, previously wrote for the Intercept, “To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system.” Yet some seem to have forgiven Harris. Shaun King, a prominent racial justice advocate and former surrogate for Sanders, told BuzzFeed that he’s come around to Harris, despite her past record. “I was a little slow to trust her as a reformer on criminal justice, but I think she’s proven herself to me,” he said. “I think she’s become one of the better spokespersons for really serious criminal justice reform in the Democratic Party.” King repeated as much after Harris was picked as Biden’s running mate. For Harris, where voters land in this debate could help decide how much she can help Biden defeat Trump. Barbara Davidson/Getty Images A person holds a poster of US Sen. Kamala Harris as people take part in the annual Women’s March on January 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. 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A smokestack emits smoke over Interstate 95 in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 17, 2019. | Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images Ditching fossil fuels would pay for itself through clean air alone. In the late 1960s, the US saw regular, choking smog descend over New York City and Los Angeles, 100,000 barrels of oil spilled off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and, perhaps most famously, fires burning on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. These grim images sparked the modern environmental movement, the first Earth Day, and a decade of extraordinary environmental lawmaking and rulemaking (much of it under a Republican president, Richard Nixon). From the ’70s through the beginning of the 21st century, the fight against fossil fuels was a fight about pollution, especially air pollution. American Stock/Getty Images The skyline of downtown Los Angeles, shrouded and obscured by smog, in 1956. In the ensuing decades, the focus has shifted to global warming, and fossil fuels have largely been reframed as a climate problem. And that makes sense, given the enormous implications of climate change for long-term human well-being. But there’s an irony involved: The air pollution case against fossil fuels is still the best case! In fact, even as attention has shifted to climate change, the air pollution case has grown stronger and stronger, as the science on air pollution has advanced by leaps and bounds. Researchers are now much more able to pinpoint air pollution’s direct and indirect effects, and the news has been uniformly bad. The evidence is now clear enough that it can be stated unequivocally: It would be worth freeing ourselves from fossil fuels even if global warming didn’t exist. Especially now that clean energy has gotten so cheap, the air quality benefits alone are enough to pay for the energy transition. This conclusion has been reaffirmed by the latest air quality research, presented at a recent hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform by Drew Shindell, Nicholas professor of earth science at Duke University (and a lead author on both recent IPCC reports). Shindell’s testimony reveals that the effects of air pollution are roughly twice as bad as previously estimated. That is a bombshell — in a sane world, it would be front-page news across the country. “The air quality scientific community has hypothesized this for at least a decade, but research advances have let us quantify and confirm this notion, over and over,” says Rebecca Saari, an air quality expert who teaches in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo. “The air quality ‘co-benefits’ are generally so valuable that they exceed the cost of climate action, often many times over.” Let’s take a closer look at the evidence for this extraordinary claim, and then we’ll consider its political implications. Science keeps revealing that air pollution is more harmful than previously believed Recently, I wrote about an ambitious and detailed new plan to substantially decarbonize the US economy by 2035 (primarily through electrification) and said that it would bring “transformative social and health benefits.” Shindell and his team at Duke have attempted to quantify those benefits, drawing on the latest science. They began with the climate model used by NASA’s Goddard Institute and upgraded it “to represent air pollution at relatively high resolution,” Shindell testified, “making this model suitable for simultaneously studying the impact of climate and air quality.” Using this all-in-one model, Shindell’s team mapped out a pathway from 2020 to 2070 that reduced US greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the world’s pledge to stay below 2°C and attempted to quantify the air quality and climate benefits. (Note: Though the model and the techniques have been peer-reviewed, Shindell’s crunching of the latest numbers is currently going through peer review. He includes extensive documentation of his methodology in an appendix to his testimony.) The numbers are eye-popping. Shindell testified: “Over the next 50 years, keeping to the 2°C pathway would prevent roughly 4.5 million premature deaths, about 3.5 million hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and approximately 300 million lost workdays in the US.” All that prevented death, illness, and lost productivity adds up to a lot of savings: The avoided deaths are valued at more than $37 trillion. The avoided health care spending due to reduced hospitalizations and emergency room visits exceeds $37 billion, and the increased labor productivity is valued at more than $75 billion. On average, this amounts to over $700 billion per year in benefits to the US from improved health and labor alone, far more than the cost of the energy transition. Importantly, many of the benefits can be accessed in the near term. Right now, air pollution leads to almost 250,000 premature deaths a year in the US. Within a decade, aggressive decarbonization could reduce that toll by 40 percent; over 20 years, it could save around 1.4 million American lives that would otherwise be lost to air quality. Of the potential yearly deaths prevented, Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois remarked at the hearing, “That’s a huge number. That’s nearly three times the number of lives we lose in car accidents every year. It’s twice the number of deaths caused by opioids in the past few years. And it’s even more than the number of Americans we lose to diabetes each year.” If the numbers are shocking, it’s because the science has been developing rapidly. First, says Shindell, “there’s been a huge upsurge in work in developing countries, in particular China,” which has produced larger data sets and a wider, fuller picture of the real-world effects of exposure. Wikipedia Smog in Beijing, China, 2013. Second, where scientists used to focus almost exclusively on pollution effects for which there is an established and well-understood biological pathway, the recent production of enormous data sets (for instance, the entire population of more than 60 million Medicare patients) has allowed them to uncover new statistical correlations. With giant data sets, “you can control for socioeconomic status, temperature, hypertension and other existing conditions,” and other variables, says Shindell. “You can convincingly demonstrate that correlation is in fact causal, because you can rule out essentially every other possibility.” For example, scientists now know that exposure to smog (tiny, microscopic particulates) hurts prenatal and young brains. Even though they don’t yet fully understand the biological mechanism, they know it reduces impulse control and degrades academic performance. Similarly, they know it hurts the kidneys, the spleen, even the nervous system. “The well-understood pathways, things like strokes, lower respiratory infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, only seem to capture about half the total,” Shindell says. “When you look at the [new] studies, you find that air pollution seems to affect almost every organ in the human body.” A recent study from the national academies of multiple countries, including the US, put it this way: The scientific evidence is unequivocal: air pollution can harm health across the entire lifespan. It causes disease, disability and death, and impairs everyone’s quality of life. It damages lungs, hearts, brains, skin and other organs; it increases the risk of disease and disability, affecting virtually all systems in the human body. “About twice as many people die in total as die just from the pathways we understand,” says Shindell. “We’ve been underestimating all along.” Alongside these updated estimates of air pollution impacts, Shindell’s team developed a new way of assessing the nationwide health impacts of severe heat, in order to quantify one of the best-understood effects of climate change. Combining them into one model, Shindell testified, “we find impacts roughly double those that would have been obtained using older evidence.” While that may sound like a big jump, it is likely a lower bound. On both air pollution and climate change, the study omitted many effects that “are clearly present but cannot yet be reliably quantified.” The true numbers are almost certainly higher. The implications of this new air quality research are far-reaching. Though the benefits of the Clean Air Act were already thought to outweigh the costs, they may be twice as high as previously estimated. The costs of Trump’s rollbacks of Obama’s fuel economy standards and Clean Power Plan are up to twice as large as previously estimated. It is no coincidence that Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is trying to exclude consideration of co-benefits (often the largest class of benefits) in its air quality rulemakings. It’s no coincidence that it is trying to exclude consideration of studies with anonymous participants, a category that encompasses all the latest research Shindell and others draw on. The fossil fuel lobby, which now includes the entire executive branch, has long understood that the science isn’t going its way. These rule changes are its last-ditch bid to blind the government to new research. Drew Angerer/Getty Images Donald Trump watches EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announce that the National Environmental Policy Act will be gutted on January 9. New air pollution research ought to break the climate policy logjam Climate change has often been framed as an intractable problem for international coordination, a matter of shared sacrifice, with every country incentivized to be a “free rider,” reaping the benefits without taking on any of the costs. But the latest air pollution research, coupled with the plunging cost of clean energy, should render that dynamic moot. It is true that climate change can only be averted with the entire world’s cooperation; if the US reduces its emissions to net zero but the other countries of the world (especially China and India) continue on their current trajectory, it will make almost no difference in temperature. The health benefits of avoided severe heat will not manifest. However — and this is the crucial fact — the air quality benefits will manifest, no matter what the rest of the world does. Shindell’s team ran a version of their scenario in which the US came into compliance with a 2°C pathway but the rest of the world continued with current policies. “We found that US action alone would bring us more than two-thirds of the health benefits of worldwide action over the next 15 years,” Shindell testified, “with roughly half the total over the entire 50-year period analyzed.” The air quality benefits arrive much sooner than the climate benefits. They are, at least for the next several decades, much larger. They can be secured without the cooperation of other countries. And, by generating an average of $700 billion a year in avoided health and labor costs, they will more than pay for the energy transition on their own. Climate change or no climate change, it’s worth ditching fossil fuels. And if this is true in the US — which, after all, has comparatively clean air — it is true tenfold for countries like China and India, where air quality remains abysmal. A Lancet Commission study in 2017 found that in 2015, air pollution killed 1.81 million people in India and 1.58 million in China. Shindell’s research reveals that those estimates may be woefully low. (He hopes to do similar modeling on China at some point.) The true toll may be almost double that, which is why both countries have experienced mass demonstrations against pollution in recent years that have left their governments scrambling. Yogendra Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images People hold placards as they protest against increasing air pollution in Noida, India, on November 17, 2019. “Air pollution remains the leading environmental health risk factor contributing to premature death worldwide, as demonstrated repeatedly by the Global Burden of Disease studies,” says Saari. “Health care costs and lost worker productivity are direct economic impacts of air pollution so large they can exceed the costs of climate policy.” Shindell ended with a call to Congress, testifying that it would be “unconscionable to realize these benefits could be obtained and not attempt to obtain them.” Air pollution ought to be seen as a global civil rights crisis The extraordinary level of suffering humanity is currently experiencing from air pollution is not necessary for modernity; it could be reduced, at a cost well below the net social benefits, with clean energy technologies on hand. If they are not necessary, then the millions of lives ended or degraded by fossil fuels every year are a choice. And when suffering on this scale, that is this brutally inequitable, becomes a choice, it enters the same ethical terrain as war, slavery, and genocide. The effects are more distributed over time and geography, as are the decision-making and the moral culpability, but the cumulative impact on human well-being — on our longevity, health, learning, and happiness — is comparable, and every bit as much worth fighting. US policymakers have a chance to kick-start an energy transition that could save 1.4 million American lives over the next 20 years, especially among the most vulnerable, even as it creates jobs and saves consumers money. As Shindell says, it would be unconscionable not to act on it. Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.
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