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Facebook plans to go after Clubhouse — and podcasts — with a suite of new audio products
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely at a congressional hearing in July 2020. | Mandel Ngan/Getty Images Announcements are coming on Monday, but some products won’t show up for a while. Facebook wants you to start talking, and listening, on Facebook. Sources say the social network is planning to announce a series of products — some of which won’t appear for some time — under the umbrella of “social audio” on Monday. They include Facebook’s take on Clubhouse, the audio-only social network that grew rapidly last year, as well a push into podcast discovery and distribution, aided by Spotify. Facebook’s audio plans include: An audio-only version of Rooms, a videoconferencing product it launched a year ago, when the pandemic spurred massive adoption of Zoom. A Clubhouse-like product that will let groups of people listen to and interact with speakers on a virtual “stage.” A product that will let Facebook users record brief voice messages and post them in their newsfeeds, like they currently can do with text, pictures, and videos. A podcast discovery product that will be connected with Spotify, which has invested heavily in podcasting over the last couple years. It’s unclear to me if Facebook intends to do more beyond flagging podcasts for its users and sending them to Spotify. It’s also unclear to me what the timeline is for the products Facebook will announce tomorrow. My sense is that the Rooms product — which, again, is a version of videoconferencing without video — is the most likely candidate to go live right away. Sources said other products may not show up, even in beta form, until later this spring. All told, the announcements are meant to signal CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that his users are ready to use voice and audio as a way to connect with each other. He’s not the only Big Tech executive who’s gotten interested in that idea recently: Twitter has already launched Spaces, its own take on Clubhouse. And Apple is preparing a new subscription podcast service it may announce as early as Tuesday, as part of its own product rollout. Zuckerberg is scheduled to talk to technology journalist (and Vox Media contributor) Casey Newton on Monday at 1 pm Eastern; this weekend Newton wrote that he and Zuckerberg would talk about “this wild transitional moment in tech and media,” noting that Facebook is “increasingly interested in newsletters, live audio, and other technologies.” Facebook offered this non-comment in response to a query from Recode: “We’ve been connecting people through audio and video technologies for many years and are always exploring new ways to improve that experience for people.” Reps for Spotify and Apple declined to comment. Zuckerberg has made his interest in Clubhouse, which launched at the beginning of the pandemic and enjoyed rapid growth throughout the last year, quite clear. He’s shown up for multiple chats on the service, including one with Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. Clubhouse, meanwhile, has just announced a new funding round that values the company at $4 billion — just months after announcing a funding round that valued it at $1 billion. At the same time, observers have speculated that Clubhouse, which features ephemeral, real-time chats in front of audiences as big as 5,000 people, may have a hard time recapturing the buzz it had in 2020 and earlier this year, when much of the world was locked down and looking for distractions. The app’s pace of downloads appears to have slowed along with its novelty, and Clubhouse hasn’t updated its user totals from February, when it said it had 10 million users. And if you want a thoughtful critique of Clubhouse’s product challenges, I suggest you read this Twitter thread from tech investor Shaan Puri. Tl;dr: It’s hard to consistently create live, audio-only content that will engage current users and bring in new ones. So... everyone seems to think clubhouse is the "next big thing" - but I think it's going to fail. Here's how I think it all goes down..— Shaan Puri (@ShaanVP) March 16, 2021 On the other hand, Clubhouse is still limited to Apple iPhone users, and when it opens up to the world of Android users, its numbers will most definitely shoot up again. It’s certainly too early to assess whether the format Clubhouse pioneered — a mix of live podcasting and virtual conference-schmoozing — is going to stick around. It’s also, obviously, way too early to figure out if Facebook’s massive scale will help it dethrone Clubhouse. But Zuckerberg hasn’t been shy about copying services or features built by competitors or would-be competitors, with mixed results: It successfully aped the “Stories” feature pioneered by Snapchat, for instance, but Rooms, its would-be Zoom competitor, never caught on. And Reels, its attempt to clone TikTok’s short-form video service, is a work in progress that is stocked in large part with... videos that first appeared on TikTok. Still to come: A Facebook-branded version of Substack’s successful write-your-own-newsletter service.
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Pelosi renews call for Congress to investigate the Capitol insurrection
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference on April 15, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images The House speaker hopes to form a commission that sheds more light on the events of January 6. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) renewed her call for a congressional commission to investigate the January 6 Capitol insurrection in a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to her Democratic House colleagues Friday. The letter, sent to mark 100 days since the attempted revolt, indicated that Pelosi recently sent another proposal to Republican House leadership seeking to create a formal group in the vein of the 9/11 Commission. “Compromise has been necessary; now, we must agree on the scope, composition and resources necessary to seek and find the truth,” Pelosi wrote. “It is my hope that we can reach agreement very soon. At the same time, committees in the House and Senate have been holding and planning hearings, which will be a resource to the commission.” Thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on January 6 while both the House and Senate were in the process of certifying the Electoral College votes. Six people, including one Capitol Police Department officer, died as a result of the day’s events. Pelosi commemorated Brian Sicknick, the CPD officer who died during the insurrection, in her letter, as well as Billy Evans, a CPD officer who died when a car attempted to overrun a Capitol barricade earlier this month. Both officers were lain in honor in the Capitol for their bravery in giving their lives to protect the Capitol and members of Congress. Calls for a congressional commission began almost immediately following the insurrection, and Trump was impeached over his role in inciting the violence in late January. He escaped conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate despite seven of his party’s senators crossing over to vote for his conviction. Democratic lawmakers would like to bring to light more facts surrounding the events of that day — who contributed to the organizing, whether the White House had a direct hand in organizing the riot, and law enforcement’s planning and response to the threat posed by the far-right mob. Pelosi, however, hasn’t done herself any favors in attempting to form the commission. In early February, the speaker proposed a commission consisting of seven Democrats and four Republicans to “conduct an investigation of the relevant facts and circumstances relating to the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol.” Republican leadership responded by objecting to the partisan imbalance in the initial proposal, and attempting to broaden the commission’s scope to include all political violence within the United States. Republicans have also sought subpoena power for conservative members of the commission. “If Congress is going to attempt some broader analysis of toxic political violence across this country, then in that case, we cannot have artificial cherry-picking of which terrible behavior does and does not deserve scrutiny,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in February. As for the newest call to action, Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) denied that he’d received a fresh proposal from Pelosi’s office, according to a CBS News report. “Neither the Republican leader nor his staff have been provided Speaker Pelosi’s latest proposal, but hopefully the speaker has addressed our basic concerns of equal representation and subpoena authority,” a spokesperson for McCarthy told CBS News. The Republican strategy throughout appears to be an attempt to distract from their party’s responsibility in driving the social and political dynamics which led to the insurrection, by pointing to random examples of left-wing violence. What-about-ism has become a common GOP tactic over recent years. But it remains to be seen whether the actions — and words — of several Republican lawmakers who promoted the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump will be within the scope of the commission’s investigation.
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India is dealing with a vaccine shortage during a new wave of Covid-19
A woman in Noida, India, is vaccinated for Covid-19 on April 17. | Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times/Getty Images The country’s vaccine supply is being hampered by export limits from the US and EU. India is the second most populous nation and the largest producer of Covid-19 vaccines worldwide, thanks to being home to the Serum Institute of India (SII) — a biotech and pharmaceuticals company responsible for 60 percent of the globe’s entire vaccine supply, according to a CNN report. But recent US and European limits on the exportation of critical Covid-19 vaccine production materials have resulted in a severe vaccine shortage throughout the country. Many of its nearly 1.4 billion residents are now finding themselves having to wait for shots during a deadly second wave of the coronavirus. India reported a record high of 261,500 new cases on Sunday, the highest recorded figure since the onset of the pandemic. The country also added a million new cases in less than a week, reaching a total of more than 14 million cases. The surge has forced India back into lockdown, with Delhi, the country’s capital region, imposing night and weekend curfews in order to limit the spread of the virus. India is also a major manufacturer supplying COVAX, the international Covid-19 manufacturing and distribution agreement. SII had originally committed to manufacture up to 200 million doses for 92 countries. Those plans are on hold for now. “Deliveries of doses from the Serum Institute of India will be delayed in March and April,” said a March 25 statement by COVAX, which is run by a coalition including the World Health Organization. “Delays in securing supplies of SII-produced Covid-19 vaccine doses are due to the increased demand for Covid-19 vaccines in India.” SII has an agreement to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as a homegrown vaccine called Covaxin. It had already provided 28 million doses for COVAX distribution and was scheduled to deliver another 40 million doses in April and 50 million in May, according to a CNN report. In January, however, the Indian government restricted the export of their AstraZeneca doses, a decision which John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called “catastrophic” for Africa in early April. The continent was set to get much of its vaccine supply through COVAX. When India started its vaccination program in January, it set a goal of fully vaccinating 300 million people by the end of August, but to date, only 16 million people have been given full doses, just over 1 percent of the country’s population, according to Johns Hopkins University data. US and European export limits are hurting India’s supply In early February, President Joe Biden invoked the US Defense Production Act to limit the export of manufacturing supplies needed for Covid-19 vaccine production. At the time, the White House said it used the act to help pharmaceutical giant Merck ramp up its production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the US distribution of which was recently put on hold to examine a very limited number of possibly harmful side effects in rare cases. In late March, the European Union put similar export limits in place in order to help ramp up European vaccine production. Together, the two export bans have hit SII especially hard. “There are a lot of bags, filters, and critical items that manufacturers need,” Adar Poonawalla, CEO of SII, told Reuters in early March. “The Novavax vaccine, which we are a major manufacturer of, needs these items from the US.” The export bans are having a knock-on effect to global vaccine production just as the world has begun dealing with an especially deadly wave of new Covid-19 variants. On Saturday, the world passed 3 million deaths from the virus. But not everyone in the Indian government is placing the blame solely on the export limits. Both India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and Home Minister Amit Shah have claimed that the country has the vaccines it needs, and that the deficiencies have come from poor planning within individual states. In an April 7 statement, Vardhan singled out Maharashtra — one of the most severely affected Indian states in the pandemic — as being especially disorganized. India intends to expand its vaccine approval Even with its accusations leveled at states, the federal government may be starting to feel some blame, or at least some responsibility. On Tuesday, India announced its plans to fast-track emergency approvals for vaccines that have been approved elsewhere by WHO, but aren’t currently being administered in the country. These include Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and Moderna. But there’s still a long way to go, and despite the mudslinging between the state and federal government branches in India, it’s clear that the main cause of the shortage is likely coming from the export limits. As wealthier EU and North American countries are beginning to look past the virus and their vaccination programs ramp up delivery of needed doses — the US has delivered over 209 million vaccine doses as of Sunday — the rest of the world seems to be getting left behind. Vaccination centers across India have been forced to close due to lack of doses, and the global supply chain will seemingly remain strained until material exports begin flowing from the West.
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Global deaths from Covid-19 have now topped 3 million
A burial at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 14. Brazil is suffering with the world’s highest Covid-19 death rate. | Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images There are now more people who have died from the coronavirus worldwide than there are residents in Chicago. Imagine that everyone living in Chicago died of a deadly disease. The world passed this grim milestone on Saturday, according to the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 tracker, which has officially recorded 3 million Covid-19 deaths around the globe — roughly 300,000 more people than all the current residents of the Windy City. The number comes as some governments have begun ramping up vaccinations while simultaneously racing against outbreaks of multiple variants of the virus. As some may be beginning to sense an end to the pandemic, the virus still continues to spread at an alarming rate globally. Globally, new infections are up recently, according to the Associated Press, averaging more than 700,000 cases and 12,000 deaths a day. “This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, where we have proven control measures,” Maria Van Kerkhove, one of the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 leaders, told the AP. The death toll is accelerating, as the world passed 2 million deaths just two months ago. Brazil is an outlier for its Covid-19 death rate, accounting for about 3,000 deaths daily, approximately a quarter of the global daily death count. The country’s alarming mortality rate can largely be attributed to President Jair Bolsonaro and his Health Ministry’s tepid response to the virus. The Brazilian president has consistently opposed lockdowns and only recently came around to accepting vaccines as a means of fighting the pandemic. In the US, the vaccination rate continues to grow, with 206 million doses administered as of Saturday, according to a Bloomberg report. But while wealthier countries may be eyeing a vaccine-facilitated end to the pandemic, less economically fortunate areas have been left waiting. Countries are vaccinating, but at different speeds Vaccinations are being administered in about 190 countries worldwide, but some, like the US and the UK, are well ahead of less developed nations. Of the 700 million jabs administered worldwide, 87 percent have gone to high-income or upper middle-income countries, according to comments last Friday from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “On average in high-income countries, almost one in four people has received a Covid-19 vaccine,” he said at a press briefing. “In low-income countries, it’s one in more than 500.” While the US and some western European countries have vaccination programs well underway, American drug companies have been waging a battle to preserve intellectual property rights over their vaccine formulas for as long as possible. This means that cheaper, generic vaccines are not yet available for widespread manufacturing in less developed countries. In February, India and South Africa appealed to the World Trade Organization to issue an intellectual property waiver on Covid-19 vaccines that would facilitate more widespread production of the shots. That move, however, was blocked by wealthier Western countries, who argued that it would stifle innovation. Recently, 10 Democratic and progressive senators wrote a letter to President Joe Biden, asking him to lobby the WTO to relax Covid-19 vaccine IP rules. “Simply put, we must make vaccines, testing, and treatments accessible everywhere if we are going to crush the virus anywhere,” the letter read. Though Biden hasn’t yet made a decision one way or the other, the White House said it was studying the issue. In the meantime, variants continue to spread, and US health officials worry about a recent decline in testing, which is critical to detecting new variants, as more and more Americans turn their attention toward getting vaccinated. “I think the testing pillar of the pandemic response is still as vital as it’s ever been,” Joseph Petrosino, chair of molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine, told Vox’s Umair Irfan last month. “Not only do we need to test, we need to start identifying which variants of the virus are spreading in a given area.”
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Biden vows to increase refugee cap after criticism from Democrats
President Joe Biden announces new economic sanctions against Russia from the White House on April 15. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images By May 15, he’ll raise the number of refugees permitted into the country. The White House pulled back from its decision earlier this week not to raise the US refugee cap, pledging late Friday to accept more refugees than the historically low levels set by the Trump administration. Last year, Trump lowered the refugee cap to 15,000, the lowest number allowed into the US since the refugee cap was introduced in 1980. Immigration and refugee advocates had hoped for an ally in Biden, who pledged during his campaign to raise the cap, and proposed in early February to accept up to 62,500 refugees this year. But earlier this week, the White House broke that promise, placing blame on the former administration’s gutting of the refugee program, which is run by the Department of Health and Human Services. “For the past few weeks, [President Biden] has been consulting with his advisors to determine what number of refugees could realistically be admitted to the United States between now and October 1,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki in a statement on Friday. “Given the decimated refugee admissions program we inherited, and burdens on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, his initial goal of 62,500 seems unlikely.” The initial decision drew a strong rebuke from some Democratic lawmakers. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) called the decision “shameful” in a tweet Friday. She and fellow Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) sent a letter to the White House Friday reiterating their call for an increase in the refugee cap. As a refugee, I know finding a home is a matter of life or death for children around the world.It is shameful that @POTUS is reneging on a key promise to welcome refugees, moments after @RepSchakowsky @RepJayapal, myself and others called on him to increase the refugee cap.— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) April 16, 2021 Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) was also critical of the decision. “Facing the greatest refugee crisis in our time, there is no reason to limit the number to 15,000,” Durbin said in a statement, according to the New York Times. “Say it ain’t so, President Joe.” After reversing their stance on the refugee cap, the White House tried to tamp down criticism by claiming there was “confusion” over the decision not to raise the cap in the first place. Democratic lawmakers applauded the reversal overall, but some of them also pointed out the continuously disorganized response to the refugee crisis. Rep. Verónica Escobar (D-TX) said as much on Twitter Friday, tweeting that she was “heartened” by the White House clarification while also urging the administration to adopt better communication regarding the matter. “Protecting the most vulnerable seeking a safe haven is who [we] are, it’s at the heart of our nation’s values,” she concluded. While I’m heartened to learn that @POTUS still intends to increase the number of refugee admissions, I urge the admin. to move with urgency and communicate with clarity.Protecting the most vulnerable seeking a safe haven is who are, it’s at the heart of our nation’s values.— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) April 16, 2021 The Biden administration has taken a number of steps to reverse Trump’s extreme nativist immigration policy. In January, Biden reversed the controversial Muslim travel ban. On the flip side, the president has come under criticism from progressives for continuing to hold unaccompanied minors crossing the border at temporary detention centers. The administration has also struggled with the politics around a recent surge in people crossing the US southern border in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and political unrest in Central America. Biden may see an electoral trap in immigration issues While the Biden administration has taken many steps to undo the harmful immigration policies of the Trump administration, the initial balk at raising the cap and the eventual reversal illustrate what a delicate political situation the president finds himself in, early in his first term. Appealing to nativist panic and fearmongering over border surges has become a staple — and successful — electoral strategy for right-wing politicians, and Biden’s careful navigation on this issue may indicate that the president is attempting to avoid a political trap. Making matters even more complicated for Biden is conservative media’s tendency to stoke this kind of paranoid nationalism. Just this week, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson once again promoted the “great replacement” theory, a myth created by white supremacists which states that Democrats purposely encourage immigration by people of color in order to dilute the electoral power of white people, and by extension, the Republican base. The myth underpins the beliefs of former Trump administration officials like Stephen Miller, who helped guide the former president’s restrictive immigration policies. Though refugees are not immigrants — nor are they asylum seekers — the Trump administration made no such distinction, viewing them all as political threats. Under Trump, the US refugee cap was lowered repeatedly until it hit a low of 15,000 in October last year. That represents the lowest number of refugees accepted into the US in history, at a time when the number of internationally displaced persons is at its highest since World War II. In 2020, the Trump administration delayed making a decision on the cap number, triggering a one-month pause on new refugee resettlements. That, combined with the pandemic, meant that from October 2019 to September 30 the following year, just 11,814 refugees were resettled within the US. Biden, by contrast, ran his campaign on reversing the immigration legacy of the Trump administration. In February, he signed an executive order raising the refugee cap to 125,000 starting this October, all while attempting to ramp up current resettlements before the new fiscal year starts. Biden acknowledged the bureaucratic challenge ahead of him when he signed the order. “The United States’ moral leadership on refugee issues was a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades,” he said in a speech at the State Department in February. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged.” But the controversy this week also illustrates that the left flank of the Democratic party remains committed to holding Biden’s feet to the fire on immigration issues. In this round, the progressives seem to have won.
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Climate change is making your allergies worse
2021 is poised to be yet another brutal year for people with allergies. | Angelika Warmuth/Picture Alliance via Getty Images The annual pollenocalypse is here. The warm, inviting spring air coupled with vaccinations for Covid-19 are encouraging people to gather outside. But for allergy sufferers, that air is packing a massive wallop that could send them scrambling back indoors. From Maine to Alabama, clouds of allergens like pollen are wafting over cities, leaving millions of people with watery eyes, headaches, and rashes. 2021 is shaping up to be yet another brutal year for allergies. Just like 2020, 2019, and 2018 ... The trend is real: Allergy risk is getting worse over time. The length and intensity of pollen seasons are growing, largely due to climate change. And as the planet continues to warm, more misery is in store. Up to 50 million Americans are estimated to have allergies, and as pollen counts increase, more people may become allergic. “I think that what will happen is that more people will get sensitized and then they will present themselves earlier because of the higher pollen count, particularly with tree pollen,” said Sunil Perera, an allergist in Roseville, California, near Sacramento. That in turn will become a greater burden on health and the economy, as even people with mild symptoms struggle with remaining active and productive. The cost of treating nasal allergies already tops $3.4 billion per year in the US. Asthma attacks induced by pollen lead to 20,000 emergency room visits a year in the US. One complication this year, like last, is the Covid-19 pandemic. Many are wondering whether their suffering is being caused by the virus or pollen. There are some overlapping symptoms between Covid-19 and allergies, like a runny nose and a loss of smell, but allergies also produce some distinct signs, like itchy eyes and sneezing, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. The more unique symptoms to Covid-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology Allergy symptoms can overlap with Covid-19, but there are some distinct signs. However, many people with Covid-19 have no symptoms at all. And there’s no reason why someone couldn’t have Covid-19 and allergies at the same time. In fact, doctors warn that severe allergies could make people more vulnerable to respiratory infections. “When allergic inflammation occurs in the respiratory tract, [infections] are easier,” Perera said. “We see concurrent allergies and infections when [patients] come see us.” Face masks may provide allergy sufferers with some relief, although they leave eyes exposed. But as the planet continues to warm, allergy sufferers will have a harder time finding refuge. Grains of pollen range in size from 200 microns down to 10 microns, with smaller grains able to penetrate deeper into the lungs. Small pollen grains can even seep indoors. And researchers are finding out just how much our own insults to the environment are to blame. How climate change makes allergies worse Allergies are the result of the immune system overreacting to something that is otherwise benign. That can lead to annoying but mild symptoms like hives or itchy eyes. But it can also cause life-threatening complications like anaphylaxis, where blood pressure plummets and airways start swelling shut. Pollen is one of the most common allergens. It’s produced as part of the reproductive cycle of plants. The timing of pollen production varies depending on the plant species, with trees peaking in the spring, grass over the summer, and ragweed in the fall. Johns Hopkins University, Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology Different plants reach peak pollen production at different times of year. There are two main ways that humans are changing pollen production. One mechanism is that humans are increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen from 280 parts per million in the 1800s to 420 ppm today. “When CO2 goes up, plants tend to grow a little bigger,” said William Anderegg, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah. “They tend to put out more flowers as a fraction of their mass, and individual flowers tend to have actually more pollen on them.” Plants that produce more pollen tend to produce more seeds. That also means more pollen-spewing plants in the next season. The other mechanism is the warming induced by carbon dioxide. Since it traps heat, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are causing the planet to heat up. This is leading to warmer winters and earlier springs, giving plants a head start on pollen production. “As spring heats up, all of these life cycle events, including pollen seasons, tend to shift earlier,” Anderegg said. The combination of these two factors is leading to more pollen production and over a longer period of time. Humanity’s fingerprints are becoming more visible in the pollen-filled skies Attribution is the growing climate science field that seeks to figure out not just how the climate is changing but also to what extent human activity is specifically to blame — and what amount of change might have occurred otherwise, without human meddling. Scientists use observations and models to figure out how phenomena ranging from extreme flooding to wildfires would be different if humans weren’t spewing gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “Think of it as looking at a baseball player before and after they start using steroids,” said Lewis Ziska, an associate professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Researchers have now begun to attribute changes in allergens to human activity. In a study published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Ziska, Anderegg, and their colleagues calculated that human impacts on the climate account for roughly half of the increase in the length of pollen seasons in North America. Human-caused climate change also accounts for 8 percent of the observed increases in pollen concentrations. “There is a very distinct climate signal that is appearing that we can directly associate with these changes in pollen, both with respect to load — how much pollen — but also with respect to the entire exposure time,” Ziska said. Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/Picture Alliance via Getty Images Humans are changing the climate, which is making pollen seasons longer and more intense. These effects are already visible, and as humanity continues burning fossil fuels, these impacts are poised to grow. Some estimates show that pollen counts of all varieties will double by 2040 in some parts of the country, depending on what pathway the world takes on greenhouse gas emissions. The northern latitudes will likely end up sneezing the most since they are the fastest warming parts of the planet. And pollen isn’t the only allergen of concern. As permafrost melts in places like Alaska, moisture is seeping into homes, creating an inviting habitat for mold. That mold can then produce spores that trigger allergies. Stinging insects are another concern in the far north. Warmer winters mean more insects survive into the spring, increasing their numbers. People who may not have realized they are allergic to stings can end up finding out the hard way that they are vulnerable. Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Center of Alaska, told Vox in 2018 that he observed that the northernmost part of Alaska saw a 626 percent increase in insect bites and stings between 2004 and 2006 compared with the period between 1999 and 2001. What’s emerging from the haze is that the health burden from allergies of all sorts is poised to grow, and there will be little relief for allergy sufferers on the horizon. But it also highlights how climate change impacts are already here, and they’re going to get worse. “This really underscores the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change as quickly as we can,” Anderegg said.
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The Supreme Court hears a case next week that could make Citizens United even worse
Donald Trump greets Justice Neil Gorsuch as Justice Brett Kavanaugh looks on. | Mario Tama/Getty Images The Court’s new majority could make it much easier for big spenders to influence American politics in secret. The Supreme Court will hear a major case on April 26 that could fundamentally alter the Court’s approach to laws requiring political organizations to disclose their donors — a change that could make it much easier for big spenders to hide the ways they seek to influence policy and elections. That case is Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Rodriquez. But to fully understand it, it’s important to keep in mind the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC(2010). Citizens United is best known forits anti-canonical holding that corporations may spend unlimited money to influence elections. While five of the justices who heard Citizens United voted to dismantle much of the nation’s campaign finance laws, eight justices also voted that the government has fairly broad authority to require advocacy groups to disclose major funders of their political activity. Disclosure requirements should be upheld, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Court, so long as there is “a ‘substantial relation’ between the disclosure requirement and a ‘sufficiently important’ governmental interest.” A lot has changed since Citizens United tucked this pro-disclosure ruling into its broader ruling against campaign finance limits, however. Four of the eight justices who supported disclosure rules have since left the Court, and three of them were replaced by judges who are significantly more conservative than the person they replaced. Which brings us to Americans for Prosperity Foundation. The plaintiffs in the case — which include a conservative advocacy group closely associated with the billionaire Koch brothers, and the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative law firm that claims it was formed to promote “America’s Judeo-Christian heritage” — seek to undercut pro-disclosure decisions such as Citizens United. And, with six Republican appointees on the Supreme Court, they have a very good chance of prevailing. The specific issue in Americans for Prosperity is fairly far afield of the foundational questions about money in politics that animated Citizens United. The plaintiffs challenge a California regulation that requires charities that wish to raise tax-deductible funds in California to disclose their largest contributors to the state attorney general’s office. State regulations require the attorney general to keep this information confidential from the public, but the attorney general’s office may use it to investigate allegations of fraud by nonprofits. The Americans for Prosperity plaintiffs claim that this disclosure regulation is unconstitutional, and they rely largely on doctrines created to prevent civil rights organizations from having to disclose their donors to Jim Crow government officials in the 1950s and ’60s. There are difficult questions underlying Americans for Prosperity. If you are inclined to be unsympathetic to a Koch-aligned group that wants to keep its donors secret, imagine a very similar case where Texas required Planned Parenthood to disclose its donors to the state attorney general’s office. Would you have confidence that no one in that office would leak the names of those donors to Tucker Carlson? But the Court has also spent the past 60 years striking a careful balance between the public’s interest in requiring charities and advocacy groups to disclose where they get their money, and the groups’ interest in making sure that their donors are not harassed, intimidated, or attacked by people who loathe a particular group and what it stands for. Americans for Prosperity gives the Court’s very conservative majority an opportunity to rework this balance. And those justices could allow political groups to operate with far more secrecy, allowing wealthy donors to shape American politics in the shadows. Why the First Amendment imposes some limits on mandatory disclosure laws In the mid-1950s, an Alabama court ordered the NAACP, which was then the preeminent organization fighting segregation in the Jim Crow South, to turn over a full list of its members to the state attorney general — and then imposed a $100,000 fine on the NAACP if it did not comply. Had the NAACP complied, it could have placed those members in grave danger. State officials could have turned over the list of members to the Ku Klux Klan. Or they may have disclosed them to racist employers who could have fired the NAACP’s members and blacklisted them from obtaining future employment. The Alabama court’s order, in other words, was a fairly transparent effort to shut down the NAACP’s operations in Alabama, either by terrorizing the organization’s members or by imposing crippling fines on the NAACP. The $100,000 fine imposed by the state court was roughly the equivalent of a $1 million fine in today’s dollars. Ultimately, however, this scheme did not succeed. In NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson (1958), a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that Alabama could not force the NAACP to disclose its members, given the obvious danger to those members if their names were disclosed. “We think that the production order, in the respects here drawn in question, must be regarded as entailing the likelihood of a substantial restraint upon the exercise by petitioner’s members of their right to freedom of association,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote for his Court. He added that the NAACP had made “an uncontroverted showing” that “revelation of the identity of its rank-and-file members has exposed these members to economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility.” NAACP was an extreme case, and the plaintiffs in Americans for Prosperity do not allege anything that even vaguely resembles the kind of abuse and intimidation that NAACP members faced in the Jim Crow South. As a lower court that upheld California’s disclosure law explained, an executive with the Americans for Prosperity Foundation “described two individuals who, she believed, stopped supporting the Foundation in light of actual or feared retaliation by the IRS,” and another donor who “did business with the Government” said that he and his associates “did not feel like they could take on the risk of continuing to give to us.” Similarly, the Thomas More Law Center “introduced a letter from a contributor who chose to make a $25 contribution anonymously out of fear that ISIS would break into the Law Center’s office, obtain a list of contributors and target them.” Unlike the NAACP in the 1950s, in other words, the Americans for Prosperity plaintiffs largely raise speculative fears that, by disclosing their major donors to one government agency, that information may somehow — in violation of California state regulations — wind up in the hands of another agency, which might target those donors. (Or, in the case of the law center, that the donor information might wind up being discovered by a terrorist organization located on the other side of the globe, which will then target American donors to the law center.) That said, the plaintiffs do have some basis to fear that some of their donor information might accidentally be disclosed to the public. An expert witness hired by Americans for Prosperity was able to hack the state’s website and uncover confidential donor information — although this security hole has since been plugged — and clerical workers in the California attorney general’s office once accidentally made a small fraction of the office’s confidential records public. The plaintiffs fear that, had their donor information become widely available to the public through a similar error, then those donors might be harassed or their businesses might be boycotted. The core question in Americans for Prosperity is whether this fear that an inadvertent disclosure might happen and that such a disclosure might lead to consequences for donors is sufficient reason to invoke constitutional protections intended to shield organizations like the NAACP in the Jim Crow era. How the Court currently approaches mandatory disclosure laws Under current precedents, the Supreme Court uses two sorting mechanisms to help it identify which disclosure laws should be struck down. The first is a balancing test described in Citizens United. Under that test, a disclosure law should be upheld if there is “a ‘substantial relation’ between the disclosure requirement and a ‘sufficiently important’ governmental interest.” Thus, Alabama’s attempt to obtain the NAACP’s members list was invalid, because the only “interest” that Alabama sought to advance when it sought this list was undermining the NAACP. By contrast, a federal appeals court upheld California’s disclosure rule because, by obtaining information about major donors to nonprofit organizations, the state advanced its important interest in determining “whether a charity is actually engaged in a charitable purpose, or is instead violating California law by engaging in self-dealing, improper loans, or other unfair business practices.” As California explains in its brief to the Supreme Court, the state’s disclosure rule “helps state regulators detect whether a charity is misusing charitable assets, such as by diverting funds for a donor’s personal enrichment.” A businessman might, for example, make a tax-deductible “donation” to a nonprofit organization, which immediately turns around and hires that businessman’s company as a “consultant” — thus allowing the businessman to take a fraudulent tax deduction without actually contributing anything to charity. The second mechanism that the Court uses to sort through challenges to disclosure laws is that it ordinarily requires such challenges to be brought on an “as applied” basis, a mechanism that allows courts to pay special attention to the specific facts of an individual case. Courts distinguish between “facial” challenges, which allege that a law is invalid in all circumstances and must cease to operate altogether, and “as applied” challenges, which allege that the law is only unconstitutional when applied to a particular plaintiff. Thus, if a plaintiff prevails in a facial challenge, the challenged law can no longer be enforced against anyone. But if a plaintiff prevails in an as-applied challenge, the government may still be able to enforce the challenged law against other parties. As-applied challenges are the preferred mechanism to challenge a disclosure law because such a challenge typically hinges on the particular impact of that law on a particular plaintiff. In Americans for Prosperity, for example, the plaintiffs allege that they engage in unpopular political work that makes their donors unusually vulnerable to harassment and intimidation. But the same cannot be said about most nonprofits — it is highly unlikely, for example, that donors to the March of Dimes would be harassed if their donations became public knowledge. Thus, when a party challenges a particular disclosure law, courts will often ask whether that individual party should be exempted from the law, rather than striking down the law on its face. In Citizens United, for example, the Court explained that a facial challenge to certain campaign finance disclosure laws was inappropriate, but “as-applied challenges would be available if a group could show a ‘reasonable probability’ that disclosure of its contributors’ names ‘will subject them to threats, harassment, or reprisals from either Government officials or private parties.’” Nevertheless, the plaintiffs in Americans for Prosperity bring a facial challenge to California’s disclosure law. They also claim that the balancing test described in Citizens United should be abandoned in favor of something much more skeptical of disclosure laws. How Americans for Prosperity might change disclosure laws Though there are some important differences between the argument in the Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s brief and the Thomas More Law Center’s brief, both argue that Citizens United’s relatively permissive rule governing disclosure laws should be, in the words of the former brief, “confined to election regulation.” Thus, while the government may be able to require advocacy groups to disclose their donors when those groups attempt to influence an election, disclosure laws enacted in any other context would be treated as more suspect. Most disclosure laws, the plaintiffs claim, must be “narrowly tailored” to serve the purpose of that law. Thus, they argue, the California law should fall because the state could use less intrusive methods to investigate fraudulent nonprofits, such as only subpoenaing records from charities that are under investigation. The state, for its part, argues that relying on subpoenas is not enough, in part because subpoenas tip off a fraudulent organization that it is under investigation. But there’s also a much more fundamental problem with the plaintiffs’ attempts to draw a line between election-related disclosure laws and laws that do not touch on elections — the border between “issue” advocacy and election-related advocacy is notoriously porous. Before Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate sending on elections, for example, lawmakers struggled to draw a sensible line between “issue” ads — ads intended to inform voters about a policy-related matter — and “electioneering communications,” which sought to influence an election. If an advocacy group runs an ad saying “tell Congressman Smith that he was wrong to vote for Obamacare,” for example, is that ad merely educating voters about a policy matter, or does it seek to undermine Smith’s reelection bid? What if the ad also praises Smith’s opponent for opposing Obamacare? What if the ad runs a week before the election? The plaintiffs’ proposed rule could very easily allow advocacy groups to evade disclosure rules that apply to election ads and similar communications with voters, so long as those communications superficially appear to focus on “issues.” Conservatives weren’t always so skeptical of disclosure laws Ultimately, cases like Americans for Prosperity come down to a question of values. Should donors who wish to spend gobs of money influencing public policy be allowed to do so anonymously? And if we think that the answer to this question typically should be no, at what point should we give special protections to donors who face harassment, boycotts, or worse? In Doe v. Reed (2010), a case about whether the public should be allowed to learn who signed a petition seeking to call a referendum on a state law, Justice Antonin Scalia offered a bracing answer to these questions: Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously . . .and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave. “Harsh criticism, short of unlawful action,” Scalia added, “is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance.” There do have to be some limits on the government’s power to require advocacy groups to disclose their donors — NAACP presents a particularly stark example of why. And if either of the plaintiffs in Americans for Prosperity has evidence that their donors face a serious risk of illegal reprisals, then they should be allowed to bring an as-applied challenge to disclosure laws that endanger those donors. But the Americans for Prosperity plaintiffs ask for much more. They ask for a fundamental shift in how the Court approaches disclosure laws. And, while they concede that there may still be campaign disclosure laws in the elections context, it’s far from clear that the Court will draw a sensible line between issue-related advocacy and election advocacy. The views that Scalia expressed in Doe represent a confident conservatism — a conservatism that believes it can win the hearts and minds of the nation through open debate. But that brand of conservatism has been replaced by something far more insecure, and far more fearful of a frequently overblown “cancel culture” that is ready to pounce on anyone brazen enough to express a conservative viewpoint. Americans for Prosperity will be an early sign of just how far this new, far more insecure conservatism has penetrated into the Supreme Court.
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