Tag Archives: climate change

This week’s tea leaves

From the globe’s climate to the particularities of abortion access in Missouri, this past week has seen a number of bold but understated announcements. Digging through the implications of what’s been revealed, here’s a few things to keep on your mind.

Global warming is accelerating

NASA released a report on temperature data they collected in March of this year, showing it to be the second most anomalously warm month in all of their modern climate observations. The infamous “hockey stick” is now observable in month-level or similarly more short term graphs, not just in centuries-long looks at global temperatures, implying that global climate change has reached a new velocity.

march 2016 anomaly nasa 1(March 2016 is circled in red, from here.)

One assessment of the data suggests that a strong El Niño, which is associated with higher temperatures in much of the northern hemisphere, might be part of what’s making rapid warming suddenly more noticeable. Mapping the temperature anomalies to different parts of the earth lends that theory some credence as the most unusually warm parts of the planet in March were almost all in northern temperate or polar areas.

march 2016 anomaly nasa 2(From here.)

GOP Senators see the writing on the wall

A number of Republican Senators have long been discussed as uniquely vulnerable in the upcoming elections this fall. Often brought into office in the atypically conservative-driven elections of 2010, they will likely face a different electorate this year, partially because of the presidential election.

A recent report from Politico, however, suggests that this wariness isn’t just being felt among newly-elected Senators. John McCain (R-AZ), who is more or less tied with his likely general election Democratic competitor, has stated he won’t be attending the Republican convention this summer, so as to focus on his own election. A similar announcement was made by Richard Burr (R-NC), who was reelected for the first time in 2010. Even Senators with longer histories in DC appear to want to play it safe this time around.

Stopping Planned Parenthood becomes leaking patient information

Months after the brouhaha stirred up by widely discredited allegations of criminal activity, Planned Parenthood operations in some states are still facing investigations. Although already cleared by the Missouri Attorney General’s office, one Missouri state senator is continuing to press the issue with a subpoena of large amounts of information on abortion from the organization. So far the state’s Planned Parenthood has stated they will comply but only if patient confidentiality is assured – which apparently has yet to be done.

A contention of wrongdoing has already mutated into a cavalier approach towards the safety and privacy of former patients. Imagine what it could become next.

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Genocide, Global Warming, and Garland

Dramatic announcements abounded this week, suggesting what issues to watch in the coming days.

Da’esh declared genocidal

On Monday, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a measure that declared that the targeting of religious and ethnic minorities in parts of Syria and Iraq occupied by the Islamic State was genocidal. Several Christian advocacy groups, with varying relationships with the region, have taken this as something of a political victory, although the ramifications remain unclear – genocide is a crime, and there now exists a complex set of international courts designed to evaluate allegations of it.

As one interesting essay published by the Centre for Research on Globalization on this issue noted-

Using the word can itself be a moral assertion, and with that assertion comes the requisite action.  At least this is the theory – words generate expectations and the need for a physical component. Designating a conflict as genocidal triggers a range of obligations, as implied by the Genocide Convention itself.  The lawyers have to be mobilised; the police and military arms of the state must be readied for capturing the offenders, and more importantly, the imperative to take humanitarian measures might involve the use of armed force.

In short, it is telling that the clearest stipulation in the measure is that political figures “should call ISIL atrocities by their rightful names: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.” When it comes to actually responding to the reality of the violence it only vaguely suggests that “member states of the United Nations should coordinate urgently on measures to prevent further war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Iraq and Syria.” The language seems to suggest that both peacekeeping and international court activity are possible as a response, but this is only one stop in a longer conversation about what the US and and should do in the region.

California’s starting to hint at a carbon-neutral economy to come

After years of negative predictions about the Californian economy and expectations that economic alternatives capable of mitigating climate change come from English cities with names like Grimsby, Mother Jones has taken an in depth look at the emerging carbon-neutral economy in the state:

The sun bears down almost every day, and as the valley floor heats up, it pulls air across the Tehachapi Mountains, driving the blades on towering wind turbines. For nearly eight years, money for renewable energy has been pouring in. About seven miles north of Solar Star, where sand-colored hills rise out of the desert, Spanish energy giant Iberdrola has built 126 wind turbines. French power company EDF has 330 turbines nestled in the same hills. Farther north, the Alta Wind Energy Center has an estimated 600 turbines. Together, these and other companies have spent more than $28 billion on land, equipment, and the thousands of workers needed to construct renewable-energy plants in Kern County. This new economy has created more than 1,300 permanent jobs in the region. It has also created a bonanza of more than $50 million in additional property taxes a year—about 11 percent of Kern County’s total tax haul. Lorelei Oviatt, the director of planning and community development, says, “This is money we never expected.”

What’s more, the things that made the Californian economy such a nice target of criticism were basically what made this possible:

“You need the coercive power of government,” he told the crowd. One of the reasons why California’s utilities already get so much of their power from renewables, he said, was because “they have no choice. The government said, ‘Do it, or you’re going to pay huge fines.'” Brown likes to upend the standard argument about government regulation gumming up innovation. To him, it’s the opposite: Regulations push businesses to try new things.

How about that? The full article warns that the state’s regulatory bodies anticipate setting even more ambitious goals for the next decades, which it remains to be seen if California can meet.

Garland’s shoe-in

A cavalcade of House Republicans have accidentally opened up that they might bother to confirm Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia. The catch is that they are willing to do that provided the Democratic nominee wins in the general election in November, accepting the more moderate and older Garland over a hypothetical younger radical. Garland’s nomination on March 16 would then wait until November 8 at the earliest for confirmation or rejection. That “best case” would weigh in at a 236 day wait – easily a record in US history.

2016-03-18_1458(The most recent nominations, from here.)

In fact, the only nomination to that office that was more than half that amount of time was Louis Brandeis’ which clocked in at 125 days. His was tied up in part because of his connection to many then radically progressive causes, exacerbated by the fact that, as one fellow Justice put it, “the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”

Garland, since he is also Jewish, wouldn’t be a similar first for the court, and actually was selected as an alternative to one – Sri Srinivasan, who would have been the first Hindu nominee. Likewise, although comparatively liberal in contrast to the Justice he would replace, he is in no way intimately tied to today’s radical causes – his primary work has been in fairly normal prosecutor duties related to terrorism. Will Republicans really wait that long to make the choice they expect they’ll have to make anyway?

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Understanding our impacts

This month so far has been full of interesting and often worrisome news about climate change. Here’s a quick rundown of some new discoveries and other confirmations that are already helping us better understand the situation and respond to it.

The tropics swell

It’s long been theorized that one effect of global warming might be that the atmospheric and ocean currents that define the tropics might extend their reach, pushing pole-ward into territory normally regulated by other patterns of air and water movement. With places in the historical tropics seeing record strength storms, it certainly seems like there’s more energy within that part of the climate system. Expansion could be an outlet for that.

hadley-cell-feature-graphic-04.02.16(The Hadley, Ferrel, and polar cells often used to define tropical, temperate, and polar regions, from here.)

Atmospheric scientist Qiang Fu’s now published past decade of work might have confirmed that at least part of that is indeed happening. Some of the most rapidly changing temperatures in the lower atmosphere are happening just outside of the tropical Hadley cells. Previously affected primarily by air and water currents in the temperate parts of the planet, those seem to now be blasted by dry air expelled from the tropics especially in their summer seasons.

Their local climates are one of the stress points where the underlying changes that have already begun are showing more obviously, and for them, the changes are almost all negative – they’ll be hotter, drier, and less predictable. The flurry of droughts in places like California, Australia, Syria, and other already fairly dry places on the edge of the temperate zone indicate where things are headed. Especially in the last of those three, the political and economic ramifications of this are very apparent.

 Things get hazy

A strangely parallel story seems to be happening at the other major meeting point in the climate system – between the temperate and polar zones. In the northern hemisphere, recent years have been marked by a frequently and strongly negative Arctic Oscillation, meaning that the coldest temperatures aren’t as neatly cordoned off by winds near the pole itself as they typically are.

ao negative positive(Negative Oscillation on the left and Positive Oscillation on the right, from here.)

While that does allow for unusually cold air to sink into temperate areas, leading to phenomena like the “polar vortex” in early 2014, it’s not the same as the tropical zones’ expansion into temperate areas. It’s more of an indirect and inconsistent byproduct of the arctic polar cell becoming less stable and coherent, rather than beefed up and encroaching southward. Warmer air from the temperate zone invades it more thoroughly than colder air from the polar zone surges south. Global warming appears to have supercharged these periodic fluxes, bringing warmer air more consistently to the far north.

Although the mechanics of how that happens aren’t fully understood, what is clear is that a surge of unseasonably warm air into the high arctic in the middle of winter is leading to surreal paucity of sea ice. An area of ice more than half the size of Alaska is simply missing, mostly replaced by the darker open water. That’s a new challenge for the ecosystems in that part of the world as well as a worrying suggestion of what more of the world as a whole might like look soon. Worse yet, unlike the lighter ice, the water easily absorbs the sun’s heat, furthering local and global warming.

Accelerating risks

At the other end of the world, the antarctic climate is similarly unstable. The Guardian’s recent report on the long term problems posed by a dramatic sea level rise succinctly described the looming threats to the southern pole:

“We can’t keep building seawalls that are 25m high,” said [Oregon State University Professor Peter] Clark. “Entire populations of cities will eventually have to move.”

By far the greatest contributor to the sea level rise – about 80% – would be the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet. Another new study in Nature Climate Change published on Monday reveals that some large Antarctic ice sheets are dangerously close to losing the sea ice shelves that hold back their flow into the ocean.

Huge floating sea ice shelves around Antarctica provide buttresses for the glaciers and ice sheets on the continent. But when they are lost to melting, as happened the with Larsen B shelf in 2002, the speed of flow into the ocean can increase eightfold.

Johannes Fürst, at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany and colleagues, calculated that just 5% of the ice shelf in the Bellingshausen Sea and 7% in the Amundsen Sea can be lost before their buttressing effect vanishes. “This is worrying because it is in these regions that we have observed the highest rates of ice-shelf thinning over the past two decades,” he said.

The antarctic is reaching a key tipping point after which it might start to look drastically different from today, with implications that will be felt around the world.

The good news

Against this backdrop of on-going disasters and horrifying possibilities, a commonly pointed out silver lining is that the transition away from fossil fuels and other aspects of our economic system that drive climate change can have positive economic impacts. A look at one of the regions in the UK furthest along transitioning to clean energy sources suggests that isn’t a far fetched expectation at all.

Grimsby, located on the southeastern coast of England, has historically had exactly the type of economy long criticized for being shortsighted. From fishing to heavy manufacturing, its historical economy was unsustainably built on a model of endless extraction and processing. The main exception to that was the military presence, a source of economic stimulus with its own problems and pitfalls. Given that, Grimsby was until recently a “blackspot” of unemployment, and widely considered economically depressed and unstable.

Interestingly, local action to implement more green technology has largely come about with the private adoption of solar and other clean power sources. That said, that transition seems to have been inspired by national action. The economic interconnections between those still living and working in the area and the United Kingdom’s offshore wind energy helped spur independent projects to create lower impact power sources. A small step towards a greener economy can ripple outwards unexpectedly, but still positively.

As daunting as the tasks ahead are, the study of them is helping us better predict what to anticipate and the study of our own economies is assuaging any fears that we can’t easily address them.

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Socialism here, socialism there

In the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate held last Sunday, sitting Senator Bernie Sanders stole the show with two intriguing admissions that spoke volumes about his politics and his electoral appeal. In the coverage of the debate that I have looked over, I was surprised to see that no one seems to have highlighted those two rather illuminating moments of the night.

In the (largely unexpected) competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders’ momentum has been shocking for many. Hillary Clinton, a national figure who entered the race without any apparent challenger, has lost ground to him as he surged from locally celebrated Senator to contender vying for Iowa, New Hampshire, and possibly the nomination. Much of that support has come from voters, particularly younger ones, interested in challenging the existing political process and pushing policy proposals from as many candidates as possible towards more economic redistribution and equality.

Sanders’ answer to a question about climate change was one of the few he delivered on Sunday that didn’t stay within the confines of economics or immediately pivot to them, but it still detailed why he’s been so attractive to that type of voter. Here’s the exchange that caught my ears:

HOLT: “Senator Sanders, Americans love their SUVs, which spiked in sales last year as gas prices plummeted. How do you convince Americans that the problem of climate change is so urgent that they need to change their behavior?”

SANDERS: “I think we already are. Younger generation understands it instinctively. I was home in Burlington, Vermont, on Christmas Eve, the temperature was 65 degrees. People in Vermont know what’s going on. People who did ice fishing, where their ice is no longer there on the lake understand what’s going on.”

His answer from there moved into his well-worn tracks of denouncing the broken political process and the economic pressures that keep it dysfunctional. Still, before moving into that he articulated a certainty that people already realize these problems exist.

I think this speaks to his broader political philosophy, which he and others sometimes misname as socialism. It falls short of a systemic transformation of the means of production into communal resources (you know… the definition of socialism), but it shares with that a belief in a common denominator of sensibleness. That’s the raw material needed to inspire people to believe that something actually like socialism is possible, so it’s not wildly unrelated to be fair.

Before anyone gets too excited about what Sanders’ politics might make tangible though, there’s the other revealing thing he said when discussing foreign policy in the Middle East:

“And one point I want to make here that is not made very often, you have incredibly wealthy countries in that region, countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Qatar. Qatar happens to be the largest — wealthiest country per capita in the world. They have got to start putting in some skin in the game [of counter-terrorism] and not just ask the United States to do it.”

The best statistics aren’t with Bernie Sanders on pretty much any part of this economic picture of Qatar and Saudi Arabia or even more generally the Persian Gulf region. In a very literal, numerical sense, these aren’t countries wealthier than the US asking for us to fight their battles for them.

The most reliable cross-country data on per capita wealth date back more than a decade and a half, and they paint a wildly different picture, which is difficult to dismiss as having radically reversed. What they show is that Qatar’s per capita net worth is about ninety percent of the US’s based on exchange rates and a little over seventy percent based when factoring in local purchasing power differences.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain – all with comparable economies to Qatar – fair similarly in comparison to the US. Saudi Arabia comes out markedly worse, coming out to barely over ten percent of the US’s per capita net worth based on exchange rates, which only grows to just over fifteen percent when accounting for greater Saudi purchasing power.

It’s easy for these discussions to become very abstract discussions of sales and productivity and various percents, removed from the lived realities of international economic inequality. In terms of infant mortality within the region, only Qatar and the UAE have both reduced their rates to equal that of the US, but that’s a development that’s happened only in the past five years. Bahrain and Kuwait still have infant mortality rates that lag several decades behind the gradually decreasing US rate, while Saudi Arabia still has a rate more than double that of the US’s current one.

It’s a similar story for the infants who survived too, with only Qatar’s life expectancy at birth rivaling the US’s in the past couple of decades. Still, the average person born in the US has gained about a year of anticipated life every five years, to the average Qatari’s year gained every decade. In other words, while the gap of how many children live is closing, the gap in terms of how long they live for is widening.

To exhaust the ways of interpreting Sanders’ comments, a country could have significantly lower standards of living than another in general, but have resources concentrated in a minority of the population that’s effectively rather wealthy. That wouldn’t fit what he’s describing, in terms of there being more resources for a typical Qatari than someone in the US, but it at least would explain why someone might draw the wrong conclusions he’s reached.

That said, while there are certainly some very wealthy people from those countries, this isn’t the case, as far as the statistics suggest. Information about the distribution of wealth within many Gulf countries is extremely difficult to find, but what little is internationally known shows them to have a Gini Coefficient equivalent to the US’s or very modestly lower. That means that while there are extremely wealthy elites within these countries that may be wealthier than the average US resident, the same is true and probably more statistically common within the US. The Qatar that Sanders described as overshadowing the US in economic power doesn’t even exist as a part of the country, let alone the whole.

qatar migrant workersMigrant workers in Qatar, from here.

There’s also the unsupported assertion that these (not actually) wealthy countries are asking us to get involved in anti-Daesh organizing, specifically with a ground occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq. Sanders’ approach towards the region misrepresents not just the existing relationship between these countries and our own, but misinterprets what leaders and average people in those countries want to have as a relationship with us.

In a nutshell, the unequal distribution of resources and as a result power which Sanders has centered his politics around criticizing doesn’t just exist within the United States but in some sense between us and many other parts of the world. His faith in people’s knowledge and intentions extends greatly, but it gets much patchier outside of US borders. There’s more nationalism in his politics than an actual socialist’s would have. It may make room for movement towards something like socialism domestically, but his take on international issues suggests that the revolution Sanders mentions is designed not to rewrite the global economic dominance of the United States.

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Writing on the wall

Trigger warning: climate change, racism

On a number of issues, the writing showed up on the wall this week, portending a variety of impending conflicts.

With the news breaking that a longer term spending agreement couldn’t be reached, the US congress entered a second round of week-long spending negotiations on Wednesday. Chief among those popularly blamed for the failure to reach some consensus was Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). While he was able to pass a bill today, his initial inability to break with the familiar patterns in prior Speaker John Boehner’s years at the helm suggests that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t entirely gone, and unlikely to easily resolve itself.

In the broader national scope, an interesting examination of where Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy draws strength from cast some ominous shadows. Trump’s supporters have long been identified as those acrimoniously done with US politics in general. Quoting a practically prophetic October analysis of Trump, it was noted that he has thrived on being distinctive, even at the cost of being offensive to some outside of his target audience.

What this speaks to is what others have discussed outside of the Trump phenomenon: the increasing polarization of political parties in the US and gradual emergence of the Republicans as more than just a political bloc but a cultural (and increasingly racially distinctive) faction. Taken together, the warning is clear – Trump has uniquely sought to capitalize on that process, encouraging politics that deliver on a certain portion of the country’s demands, rather than a consensus. Those are the politics that lead to undemocratic reigns or contentious civil conflicts.

climate_change_paris_ap_img(From here.)

Lastly, the world appears to be repeating familiar mistakes in responding to climate change. The agreements forged in Paris recently are impressive, arguably more so than many expected to come out of the process. But, identically to the Kyoto Protocols, they’re nonbinding promises. We’ve been down that road before, and hopefully can remember what exactly went wrong.

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How HIV/AIDS warns us

Trigger warning: HIV/AIDS, heterosexism, cissexism, anti-Black racism

Once again, it’s World AIDS Day. Just like last year, there’s no google doodle, which helps dampen the discussion around HIV/AIDS as an on-going problem. It probably didn’t help stir up conversation around the issue that rather recently the disease has already been in the news – either because of price gouging on immunodeficiency drugs or new research into a possible HIV vaccine.

That vaccine – which pushes the limits of common definitions of a vaccine because of HIV’s unique viral structures – actually demonstrates what can happen when public interests are privatized. While to some extent publicly funded (too much to the taste of some), research into ways to combat HIV/AIDS has long sought either this type of vaccine or similar solutions designed around preventing the spread of HIV. What medical options exist for the millions already infected worldwide – who are disproportionately LGBT and Black – is kind of ominously given less focus.

Zambia
A public sign reading “Know your HIV status” in Simonga, Zambia, from here.

This isn’t a new dynamic either. From its inception, the HIV/AIDS crisis was greeted with solutions aimed at containment. From the early debates over abstinence versus protected sex, to the recent sexual revolution heralded by PrEP and PEP, that’s been where most public attention, professional research, and money has gone. A vaccine is just another chapter in that history.

There’s some understandable reasons for the emphasis on preventing infection, admittedly. In the early years of the epidemic, HIV was really baffling, and so medically treating it was basically guesswork. Preventing infections was the easiest and best way to save lives, and to a large extent remains so. Even now, when living with HIV has become less difficult and dangerous, having options for both HIV positive and HIV negative people to choose between in order to reduce risk of infection has its benefits. People can use methods that work best for them – what’s wrong with that?

The logic there is subtly consumerist, of course. The funds – public and private – that have gone into developing different ways of addressing HIV look in the long run more like business research and development. The Martin Shkreli controversy should once again remind us that the medical items designed and tested with those resources, are increasingly lining the pockets of a private medical industry.

Like any business, they’ve assessed their potential clients – and they saw little money to be made in a tighter focus on the marginalized populations with the highest infection rates. Prevention has a broader set of potentially customers, a section of whom have more disposable income than the average person in sub-Saharan Africa or transgender woman in the industrialized world.

The social costs of that commercial outlook have been staggering.

hiv aids subsaharan africa
(From here.)

Since I mentioned this in light of the more market-driven solutions being touted on climate change, I will admit, those are two radically different issues. The flaws inherent in a response to global warming that values certain populations over others will look different than the preference for prevention over treatment in HIV/AIDS research. That said, who’s to say that isn’t already happening?

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The ends justify the means

Paris has remained the center of international attention after the coordinated terrorist attacks on November 13, in part because of the looming climate talks that have now begun. In light of recently stoked fears of panic and chaos, a large-scale and officially recognized protest was prevented from occurring. Many have questioned whether the shutting down of the primary demonstration – planned months in advance to be one of the largest mobilizations in the world on this issue – was an opportunity for the many heads of state meeting today, seized with the justification of anti-terrorism.

For all the fears of a creeping police state, unleashed by counter-terrorism but focused squarely on silencing political dissent, the marchers appear to have gotten most of their goals. Various commitments (yeah, considering how Kyoto went, you can roll your eyes at that) have already been agreed to by major international players. For those who wanted to physically protest and fight the French state, opportunities for that have been available too, although probably not ones they wanted.

2015-11-30_1946
(From here.)

One detail curiously lost in the paranoia about a steadily expanding French surveillance system that can easily curtail civil liberties (which isn’t really unfounded), is the US’s own strangely undemocratic stance. President Obama has embraced a legal framework designed to allow him, or any future president, to move the US towards its emissions commitments without congressional approval. If you remember the reaction to his executive actions on immigration, you can already see how that could potentially play out.

There is an unfortunate way that this does reflect negatively on him. Instead of deciding that it was possible to win a majority in the Senate that supported collective action on this issue, his administration has opted for a strategy that’s essentially undemocratic. Admittedly, this is in some sense to be expected – the losses of the Democrats in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014  made any other tactic untenable, especially given the memory of how the Kyoto Protocols went over in the US Senate last time around.

The US Senate is, as I’ve said before, at the heart of how the US democracy isn’t representative of the political ideas and considerations of a solid majority of US voters, let alone residents. To those familiar with the millenia-old ancient Greek understanding of tyranny, this situation might be eerily familiar. Representative structures hijacked by powerful and enfranchised groups can be opposed by populist pressure, in the form of what ultimately amounts to a dictator’s answer to their illusion of democracy.

This is one of the ways that representative governments have historically fallen – when achieving something that resembles a democratic, populist outcome requires jettisoning or even dismantling the established, at least nominally democratic process. For modern Western states, this is perhaps best understood in the phantom of Napoléon, the quintessential revolutionary turned emperor.

Amid the fears that even a zealous commitment of the current goals would only modestly curb climate change, the haunting warnings of The Hunger Games universe seem apt. In those book series, set in a distant future in North America, President remains the title of the head of state, but is unambiguously a dictatorial position. The cultures and economies in that dystopia reflect among other things the damage wrought by climate change, which is implied to have helped dictatorial figures retain control, enforcing among other things, restrictions aimed at having positive environmental effects.

Before anyone reading this thinks I’m falling into a kind of pop culture rebuke of doing anything about climate change, let me assure you I’m not. The true horror here isn’t that President Obama is the next Napoléon. His elaborate work-around for dealing with the Senate isn’t to amass power within his own political office and deal with climate change or any other problems himself. Instead, his effort is to support the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other non-government organizations, which can circumvent the political requirements of a treaty.

This is less dictatorship and more privatization. We’re not a modern democracy, at risk of the revolution becoming an empire. We’re a post-modern democracy, in danger of cutting the state into private structures beyond democratic check.

Perhaps, France’s police, pushing protesters to the ground and throwing tear gas canisters, are less of a sign of things to come and more of a historical holdover. Instead of populist politics finding their expression in hands of just one person – and hence corroding democratic processes – or a lumbering or even misguided “democratic” government, we’ve entered a new era in which the state actually cedes power. For all their deep flaws, either of those options at least have some basis in popular consensus. The libertarian future being hinted at here has little to no democratic oversight.

The iconic images of undemocratic rule – of an all powerful state – might only just be that, icons, infused with political meaning only within a specific cultural context. We’re in a brave new world, in which the power of the few doesn’t necessarily control or even want to control the state.

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Coal lights the way

Perhaps it’s because the heart of coal country – West Virginia and Kentucky – won’t be voting in the presidential primaries until relatively late in the season next Spring, but coal hasn’t capture the conversation quite as much as it has in prior campaigns. As a commodity, it’s deeply implicated in almost all of the issues raised in both major parties – climate change, energy availability, domestic economic competitiveness – but it’s become something of a pariah.

Lewis Wickes Hine

A West Virginia coal mine entrance, by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1908. From here.

Quietly however, a few prominent politicians have still come out recently with policies for the industry and its most intense regions of operation in the US. That there is a space for the government to do something to help is, surprisingly, something of a bipartisan concern, particularly advanced by the more business-centered wings of both major parties.

Still, that’s about where agreement ends. Republicans led by Ohioan Republican Senator Rob Portman have called for investment to encourage innovations within the coal industry, particularly to capture carbon emissions. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, instead suggested a broader revitalization project to address any negative outcomes of her environmental policies. It aims to shore up public education in the region and expand access to job training, in case the industry’s workforce ends up being reduced.

In spite of their differences, both proposals attempt to shrink the climate footprint of the US and improve the economic lot of the people of Appalachia. Their different ways of going about those goals, however, indicate a subtly distinction between the typical economic policies from the major parties. The government filling in for the failure of investors to create a drive for carbon-capturing power plants is basically a gentle nudge on the existing market dynamics. The government creating opportunities for people to enter different industries is equally capitalist and competition-minded, actually, but understands the government’s role differently. Instead of redirecting the occasional dinner conversation, the government puts a lot of thought into the seating chart and lets conversations develop organically from there.

What this speaks to is a broader disagreement on how capitalism and economics necessarily function, or at least potentially could. From the conservative perspective, private ownership is absolute and can only rarely and carefully be circumscribed. From eminent domain to taxation, the government is begrudgingly permitted to get involved, but with the constant expectation that it should explain its reasons why and quickly get back out.

For liberals on the other hand, and that doesn’t mean anti-capitalists, the understanding is that the government has always been involved, if for no other reason than it sets up the courts and legal standards that create our understanding of ownership and award different people ownership of different goods, territories, or resources. The government’s involvement is a constant – as it continually maintains the legal, social, and political systems and expectations that basically create the economic system.

It’s a shame that coal has ended up on the back burner of US politics, because the policies around it have created such a great example of the contrasting understandings of the world and ideas about how it should work which the two major parties are offering.

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Shots across the bow

Trigger waring: climate change, food insecurity, anti-Black racism

The attacks in Paris have dominated the broader news cycle all week as well as my writing on here. That’s exactly the type of situation I started Let Me Link You Fridays to help counteract, so here’s a short list of other events that caught my eye recently. Maybe the attacks in Paris put everyone on edge, because almost everyone was firing shots across the bow at someone or other.

GMOs: not all they’re cracked up to be?

Greenpeace, an environmental organization largely known for activist efforts other than opposing genetically modified (GM) crops, responded to the recent rebranding of genetic modification in agriculture. Seemingly encouraged by the defeat of GM labeling initiatives in 2012 and by the increasing market prominence of GM salmon, advocates of the new technologies have trotted out a number of older arguments for GM products. Chief among them is that the GM industry, which many GM advocates are critical of for its gene patenting and heavy use of pesticides, is separable from the GM technologies which might improve food security and yield other benefits for marginal communities around the rapidly crowding and warming world.

The report released by Greenpeace earlier this month doesn’t mince words on those arguments. The very title of it – “Twenty Years of Failure” – cuts to the core issue with many of those claims. If either GM technologies or the groups wielding them actually could resolve the problems in the world’s food systems, why haven’t they had any measurable impact in that way yet? It notes that literally all genetic modifications are designed with a highly industrialized agricultural model in mind – the same one that has outcompeted fragile food economies in some of the poorest parts of the world. What’s left in GM crops’ favor are only a few hypothetical improvements – better crop yields, ready-made adaptations to climate change, and other changes they haven’t yet been developed and for which local and traditional food production systems often have an already tangible alternative waiting in the wings.

Who doesn’t count in the Census?

More domestically, the American Prospect asked what might happen as a result of increased pressure on the Census Bureau to count the country’s population with online means. An aggressive inclusion of face-to-face counting was the order of the day in 2000 and 2010, and appears to have helped reduce the miscount discrepancy between White people and people of color to historic lows.

As the Census Bureau’s own website makes clear, the assessment of how many people live in a given area is among the deciding factors that “determine how more than $400 billion dollars of federal funding each year is spent on infrastructure and services.” Those are the medical, educational, and other community services that people of color in the US have inadequate access to – in part because censuses regularly undercount them where they live and overcount White people where they live.

The American Prospect notes that there is a partisan dimension to this. It’s a largely Republican effort to defund the Census Bureau. The loss of funds is mostly likely to affect the availability of the Bureau’s face-to-face services and other strategies key to creating the most accurate count, so that the government can serve all its citizens.

Who doesn’t count at the polls?

 

The Republicans weren’t just under fire for the racially-charged outcomes of their policies – they also showed they weren’t interested in backing down on those issues. A local court case about Virginia’s state legislative districts, which found that the Black population had been gerrymandered into a single district, has been appealed and may be heard by the US Supreme Court. Considering that the Republicans appealing the case neither live in the district nor represent it, they may be found to lack standing on the matter. Sticking their necks out like that seems a bit bold, possibly in a way that’s more likely to backfire than overturn the decision they disagree with.

One other act of boldness has been the claim from Virginia Republicans that the gerrymandered district was mandated under the (now defunct) preclearance system put in place by the Voting Rights Act. With the NAACP among the organizations arguing that this effectively disenfranchised the Black population of Virginia, and even presenting alternative maps, it’s a bit difficult to believe that the Republicans just had to limit Democratic-leaning Black voters to essentially a single district.

This is a bit of a warning shot that Republicans may argue in the many gerrymandering districts that the alternative to maps which pack Democratic-leaning demographics into “dump districts” are somehow what they were forced to comply with under preclearance. It’s also a bold move, if accepted by the courts, since it would force the plaintiffs to choose between supporting the reinstatement of preclearance (designed to prevent voter suppression measures) or advocating for non-gerrymandered districts. Those are two different issues, ultimately about different things, but Republicans look like they’re hoping to muddy the waters between the two.

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The featured image was produced from 2010 census data of New York City. Red dots represent 25 White residents. Blue are 25 Black residents; green are 25 Asian residents; orange are 25 Latin@ residents; yellow are 25 who marked other. From here.

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Wet, weird, and weirder

A number of interesting looks at well-covered situations have come out this week, so I think it’s important for everyone to give them a one-over, if nothing else, to enrich the conversation around them.

MinuteEarth, a YouTube channel that specializes in short science-focused videos that describe a given natural phenomenon, put out an intriguing piece on Tuesday. This is just one data point in the broader scatter plot, but it seems like the conversation around climate change and its far-reaching effects has not only become something of a regular topic for many people, but that the emphasis in it has shifted. While protests still happen, there’s been a changing tone, away from addressing carbon pollution and other causes of the globe’s warming and towards mitigating the impacts.

The clear perspective in the video – not only that climate change is a real issue and will have demonstrable negative effects, but that certain policies need to considered as soon as possible – is a sign of how much that change has happened. In a science-minded space like MinuteEarth, that shows how the assessment of what we can do about the problem has changed. On a popular venue like YouTube, it’s a sign of how the broader popular culture might change towards thinking and talking about the issue as well.

On Wednesday, Talking Points Matter turned their spotlight on Ben Carson. With holes appearing in his description of his professional past and a bizarre past statement surfacing about the “real” use of the pyramids as grain stores (as apparently biblically described), his presidential primary campaign has taken a dramatic turn for the surreal. Well, more surreal. TPM chose to highlight a part of his candidacy obscured by the somehow more fantastic elements (pyramids!) and more overtly disqualifying ones (lying!): his Bush-like subtle references dropped for certain evangelical circles and the John Birch Society to pick up while others stand around confused. As Ed Kilgore put it-

[T]he real key for understanding Carson (like Beck) is via the works of Cold War-era John Birch Society member and prolific pseudo-historian W. Cleon Skousen, who stipulated that America was under siege from the secret domestic agents of global Marxism who masqueraded as liberals. Carson has also clearly bought into the idea that these crypto-commies are systematically applying the deceptive tactics of Saul Alinsky in order to destroy the country from within—a theme to which he alluded in the famous National Prayer Breakfast speech that launched his political career and in the first Republican presidential candidates’ debate.

It’s not clear how many Carson supporters hear the dog whistles and understand what his constant references to “political correctness” connote (it’s his all-purpose term for the efforts of America’s secret enemies to mock or silence cognoscenti like himself, Beck and Skousen), but added with his other advantages, it fills out his coalition with depth as well as breadth.

Never fear though! The same day, 538 published a deliciously exhaustive look at the structure of the delegate system within the Republican presidential primary, and they couldn’t have been clearer in their findings. In a nutshell, the system is designed to keep the Republican Party a national party, with wide appeal. Delegates aren’t awarded evenly based on population, but they are more evenly distributed than Republican voters, particularly in the general election. While there are bonus delegate seats given to areas with more current Republican officeholders, those are swamped by the popular vote delegates which work like a kind of pre-run of the electoral college.

As I’ve noted before, one of the key problems with that part of our voting system is that turnout is irrelevant. An incredibly small group of people in heavily weighted districts can easily outvote much larger populations, because people don’t vote, districts, weighted by population and as a single bloc or with proportionate representation, do. A similar situation to the hypothetical situation I noted in that post has become a regular occurrence within the Republican presidential primary, at least according to 538. A small number of “blue state” Republican voters cast votes that stand-in for the much larger population they live among and who lean variously away from the Republican Party. Largely comparatively socially liberal and interested in the Republican Party because of economic policies, they’re often able to swing the party back from it’s more regionally popular candidates seemingly at the last minute.

Ben Carson may have the lasting power described by Talking Points Memo, but that’s all moot if he can’t bring himself into vogue with more moderate portions of the Republican Party, which actually have more sway that commonly realized.

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Scary stories, just add campfire

If your day has been anything like mine today you are quickly grabbing together the most important things to bring with you to a Halloween party either tonight, tomorrow, or some other time in the next couple of days. Costumes, candy, and drinks are, of course, the expect items you have to gather together in preparation, but let’s not overlook one holiday-specific must-have: scary stories. Let me link you to a couple of spooky tales to wow people with this weekend.

Zombies… at the polls

The SF Weekly has a bleak portrayal of the emerging voter landscape in one of the country’s largest cities. Although apathy and disengagement have flourished in the midst of an anemic economic recovery and the widespread perception that there are few to no possible solutions to social and economic inequality within the democratic system, the problem appears to have been uniquely stoked within San Francisco.

The longer form piece goes into detail about potential contributing factors – including Democratic Party bungling, flawed election scheduling, and most deeply the ways that gentrification has recreated San Francisco’s communities. Beyond the myriad causes, the message is that democratic governance in many parts of the country is rapidly becoming something run on autopilot. Yikes!

Watching you

From France to the US, a number of countries are now considering even more extensive surveillance regimes that promise to make the system revealed by Edward Snowden look like child’s play.

Access Now released an assessment of the bill now facing consideration in the US Senate which called it “a surveillance bill dressed up as a cybersecurity bill.” Their look into the French bill, just passed by their senate, is even more grim, noting that it mandates “telecommunications companies to install ‘black boxes’ on their networks, which use an algorithm to indiscriminately sweep data for suspicious activity”. It’s worryingly unclear what will be counted as “suspicious” of course.

Not in either France or the US? No problem, these are policies that apply to any data picked up by anyone, citizen or not, in any part of the world.

The end of the world as we know it, and some feel fine

It’s come up on this blog before that climate change is likely to disproportionately damage some of the poorest communities and countries (who are also often least responsible for the crisis). The process of that is complex and combines together the fact that those groups typically have fewer resources to spend on either preparing for the new climate or directly address its impacts as they arise, as well as the happenstance that many of the poorest communities in the world are in climatic areas simply more likely to see dramatic changes.

One recent study from UC Berkeley, however, attempted to quantify exactly how the world’s national economies will be affected and found two startling results. According to it, the lost wealth for many of the world’s poorest regions – South Asia, Africa, and Latin America namely – will be much larger than many have anticipated. For a huge swathe of the world’s population, this means a reduced income and an inherently limited economy. What’s more, there are a few countries that might even see modest economic gains thanks to climate change. They’re concentrated in northern Europe, with a few other inclusions mostly from some other countries with comparatively healthy economies in current day. In short, not only are the pains felt by the world’s poor probably going to be much worse, there’s a number of people disproportionately responsible for global warming who actually stand to benefit from the changed climate.

With these stories you’ll be the toast of the party. That doomed, doomed party.

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Frankenstein’s Monster

The rains have stopped in South Carolina, but dams continue to break or fail, leaving several counties in continuing states of emergency. Water levels are still rising in many parts of the state as rainfall drains from Appalachian foothills, replacing already high levels of water in lower areas. With seven deaths from drowning and some truly haunting images of caskets floating away in floodwaters, South Carolina residents, currently fairly middle of the pack in the US on questions about climate changes relevance and seriousness, may have a renewed focus on the issue and what can be done about it.

Coincidentally, that renewed interest is coming about just after a guest appearance by Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bill Maher’s weekly program. On the subject of terraforming other planets, Tyson made the argument for (re-)terraforming Earth itself instead:

While the broader outlines of his argument – that we may soon have the technology and knowledge to allow us to repair some forms of environmental damage or change that currently vex us – is one that gives many people hope, there is a worrying conclusion these ideas might lead some to. In a nutshell, if we can fix the Earth, what’s the harm in breaking it in the first place?

Just as rigorous as Tyson’s point but less directed towards a popular audience, a consensus has begun to grow within many parts of the scientific community. Most recently this took the form of a concern that the natural analogue for a leading tech-fix to climate change – atmospheric aerosols – has complex and largely negative effects on freshwater availability in the broader world’s climate. For the millions of people worldwide who already are experiencing global warming induced water shortages, the implication that the “solution” to the problem might just compound their current predicament is hardly a reason to hope.

I suspect Tyson understands these concerns, but I hope he can highlight it more prominently. Terraforming another planet is not a simple thing, but neither is terraforming our own. The ultimate enemy here isn’t specifically climate change. It’s carelessness. Any presented solution has to acknowledge and tackle that specifically, or else we will be lurching from global warming to another slow motion disaster of our own making. Next week, while I watch and liveblog the Democratic debate, I won’t be hoping for the candidates to discuss global warming, but for them to indicate how they can lead us away from the recklessness that led to this current situation, and into something more nuanced and patient.

The featured image for this article is from here.

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Onwards and upwards, but not for all

Trigger warning: gun violence, racism

Yesterday, ten people died and seven were injured in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Motivated by the public outcry, President Obama gave a speech on the event and the issues it raises yesterday which still dominates my newsfeed and in all likelihood yours as well. He laid out a basic argument for gun control and against a hypervigilance for over-regulation of firearms and related weapons:

We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston.  It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.

And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.  Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out:  We need more guns, they’ll argue.  Fewer gun safety laws.

Does anybody really believe that?  There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country –they know that’s not true.  We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws — including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.

That is understandably deeply moving. It taps into one of the great beliefs in the United States about this country – that we are an evolving country, tethered by traditions but not ensnared by them. We can – and do – blaze forward, the story goes, changing ourselves in order to make life better. This story is sometimes about this type of regulation on a product, but can also come in the form of appeals to how the franchise has expanded, widening the voting population towards something today considered to be an approximation of universal suffrage. Obama is, I suspect, quite consciously marrying those two tales together, crediting the ostensibly safer and healthier life of the average US citizen to the theoretically democratic achievements of this country. We can literally vote ourselves to safety.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly unclear that any part of this narrative is true. Past regulations on firearms and present day regulations on cars and other products Obama later mentions were opposed at almost every step by a major industry if not several. Those two are some of the most successful campaigns for that matter. Even as cars have reduced the dangers in an accident, they’ve gotten better at concealing their emissions, disguising the threat they pose to a stable and useful climate for us and ultimately everyone else in the world. Almost all of these improvements are rooted in economic bottom lines. It’s better to make a product that doesn’t easily and regularly kill your customers – that’s just basic business sense. But longer term damage to its consumers, to their descendants, and to the broader world can just be “externalities“, at least for much longer than that other kind of threat.

When it comes to more general issues of social and economic security that same statistics crop up repeatedly showing that many problems have lingered or even worsened. Food insecurity remains prevalent in the US. Union membership – long a bulwark for lower and middle classes to protect their interests – has drastically declined, as has (for that and other reasons) the political effectiveness of unions. Fear of poverty, of want, and of homelessness are barely considerations in the economic and political system in which we live, and so have at best been allowed, and at worst encouraged as “motivation“. The idea that we have become safer than those before us downplays these concerns and denies the observable reality that sometimes things actually have gotten worse.

Suffrage, still full of historical holes like felon disenfranchisement, has recently taken a hit from the dismantling of the pre-clearance system. Already, Alabama appears to be coordinating mass suppression of voters of color in advance of the 2016 election with no effective federal oversight. Other states are likely to follow suit. Even before that structural link in US democracy crumbled, we were already facing an effective plutocratic check on at the very least national elections, and by one study’s standards, were no longer a democracy, but rather an oligarchy. A majority of people in this country – citizens or not – might want basic regulations on weapons, but does that mean anything? For years, in spite of popular outcry, it hasn’t.

katrinaNew Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, from here.

Further along in his speech, Obama presented what he viewed as a few analogues to what he hopes we could accomplish on gun control, saying among other things, “When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer.” One needs only point to Katrina as an example of how limited those improvements often can be. Over a thousand died, and over a million were displaced. More valued populations threatened by later hurricanes have been better protected, so perhaps the government learned something from that disaster. But those lessons learned in catastrophe haven’t been applied to repair the still hurting (and specifically Black) communities in New Orleans, but to preserve the business centers of Houston and the greater New York area. In fact, as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina created the opportunity for a wealthier and Whiter demographic to move in and replace dead or displaced residents, parts of New Orleans seem poised to attain a similar status, only without the people who originally lived there.

Progress appears to be a privilege, increasingly reserved only for some in this society. It seems vital that we ask who gets left behind, and not only when the answer is “almost everyone.”

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Corbyn and Sanders

Jeremy Corbyn’s successful election as opposition leader within the UK Labour Party’s shadow government has caused quite a lot of buzz within the broader anglophone political world. In that highly visible position he will be the one to detail Labour’s rhetorical and policy alternatives to the current conservative UK government. As arguably the most liberal person running a plausible campaign for the position, this suggests the possibility of a bold turn left within the Labour Party and arguably many centers of non-right political power in the UK. With Sanders, a registered independent and self-described socialist, running in the Democratic Presidential Primary in the US and similar rumblings within Canadian politics it seems as though further left political figures are coming out of the woodwork around the world, but especially in English-speaking circles.

These changes have not been without their critics of course, as many have decried the these comparatively leftist politicians are “unserious” or “unreasonable” compared to center-left figures they threaten to replace. As Matt Bruenig asked last week, there’s a structural question that raises: what exactly are further left politicians supposed to do? In both the party leadership elections within UK parties and in the presidential primaries and generals in the US, the systems offer only two choices for them: to compete within the center-left in in-party elections or outright against it as a separate party. In either case, they are inevitably challenging the center-left for control of policy, and face criticism for jeopardizing the advancement of a center-left alternative. It’s presented as a kind of making the perfect the enemy of the good by the center left, but as a necessary test of a careful approach’s merits by those to the further left.

Of course, as Bruenig points out, that push-and-pull between gradualism and radicalism within a broader left coalition assumes that the center-left and left share common goals. Ultimately politicians like Sanders and Corbyn want to entirely restructure society in a way that dramatically recontextualizes or even overhauls the procedures under which they compete with more centrist candidates. Is that true of their rivals?

bernie sanders revolutionFrom here.

Beyond these issues of political process, it seems relevant to ask what counts as “reasonable”. The comparatively moderate portions of left wing coalitions treat it as a self evident truth that they’re more electable and realistic. Both the US and UK are facing epidemic levels of disengagement. It’s unsurprising that that’s the case given how parties from center-left on towards the right have largely failed to tackle some of the most systemic difficulties for the average person – global climate change, the economic downturn, and globalization. As some have pointed out, its specifically the poor who are most likely to disengage from electoral politics, and that’s at least in part because there are few to no parties or major figures addressing their concerns with viable solutions.

Arguably the recent political success of comparatively far right politics in both the US and UK (and many other countries) have demonstrated the power that rightwing parties can harness simply by offering a response to those problems, not even necessarily a logical or actionable one. In general, lower income voters still skew towards left-center parties, but that exists within a general vacuum of more leftist alternatives.

An electoral landscape shaken up by higher rates of participation would drive political discussion most likely towards the left, but that would threaten the fragile consensus that has allowed the center-left to become so powerful. Corbyn and Sanders are essentially moderate compared to the politicians who might follow them if they’re able to enact policies that would enable greater political participation. The need to prevent that sort of constituency “escape” to the left is a reason for the center-left to make common cause with the center and right and frame themselves as an end-point of reasonableness even if that reinforces on a rightwing view of the broader political world and discourages leftwing activism. Power is more important than change, for some.

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Whose protest is driving the conversation on climate change?

Trigger Warning: colonialism, climate change

Recently, many activist spaces and organizations in wealthy, early-to-industrialize nations have been prioritizing action on global climate change, and have even seen some response from among others, the Obama Administration itself. As I’ve noted before, both colonized people living within those parts of the world and people living with the fallout of centuries of colonialism and other policies in other areas have much more at stake in this warming world, have done much less to create the current situation, and unfortunately have significantly less international power to influence the developing crisis. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying, however.

Hurricane Danny's projected path into the Lesser Antilles this weekend or MondayHurricane Danny is expected to make landfall in the Lesser Antilles before this coming Monday, from here. More info here.

Most visibly, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, famous for his anti-Apartheid activism in his home country and more recent HIV/AIDS activism, has publicly called on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Barack Obama to set even more ambitious targets for declining greenhouse gas output – specifically a total cut of emissions by 2050. His open letter to those two officials is not only being circulated but presented as something that any interested person can also sign in support. Public protest actions within the countries most responsible for the global warming are important, but it’s important to also center the voices of people in the broader world who have a different language to describe the nature of the problem.

The featured image is of some of the indigenous participants in the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, from here.

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