Michael Grunwald reports: The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate.
The industry and its supporters use “war on coal” as shorthand for a ferocious assault by a hostile White House, but the real war on coal is not primarily an Obama war, or even a Washington war. It’s a guerrilla war. The front lines are not at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Supreme Court. If you want to see how the fossil fuel that once powered most of the country is being battered by enemy forces, you have to watch state and local hearings where utility commissions and other obscure governing bodies debate individual coal plants. You probably won’t find much drama. You’ll definitely find lawyers from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the boots on the ground in the war on coal.
Beyond Coal is the most extensive, expensive and effective campaign in the Club’s 123-year history, and maybe the history of the environmental movement. It’s gone largely unnoticed amid the furor over the Keystone pipeline and President Barack Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon, but it’s helped retire more than one third of America’s coal plants since its launch in 2010, one dull hearing at a time. With a vast war chest donated by Michael Bloomberg, unlikely allies from the business world, and a strategy that relies more on economics than ecology, its team of nearly 200 litigators and organizers has won battles in the Midwestern and Appalachian coal belts, in the reddest of red states, in almost every state that burns coal.
“They’re sophisticated, they’re very active, and they’re better funded than we are,” says Mike Duncan, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now heads the industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. “I don’t like what they’re doing; we’re losing a lot of coal in this country. But they do show up.”
Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of U.S. power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.
This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason U.S. carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade. [Continue reading…]
On Sunday night, at the stroke of midnight, will a shroud of fear be lifted from freedom-loving Americans?
Let’s assume that a last minute deal isn’t reached in Congress and the surveillance powers of the Patriot Act are indeed allowed to expire.
This might not amount to the kind of statutory protection of privacy that critics of the NSA have hoped for, and yet physically pulling the plug on the actual mechanisms of mass surveillance will highlight the difference between living in a world where all our information gets sucked into data warehouses and a world in which it remains a tad more secure under a blanket in the Cloud — or wherever else we’ve chosen to keep it hidden.
Of course, a lot of people won’t believe the plug got pulled — certainly not at a moment when they believe the Federal government is about to impose martial law in Texas — and so the reported suspension of surveillance will more likely reinforce their paranoia.
But for those who believe that a measure of freedom lost has been reclaimed — at least for now — how will that freedom be enjoyed?
That’s where I draw a blank.
I’ve seen the polls in which some people say that NSA surveillance has changed how they use email and made them inclined to censor themselves and yet I’ve always been baffled by these reactions.
Most NSA critics who have studied the issue are acutely aware that mass surveillance is virtually useless for gathering information about terrorism, so how exactly might it accumulate useful information about you or me?
From Sunday to Monday, we will cross over from a world in which we are watched but unseen, into a world in which we will remain unseen. If that seems like a profound transition, I’d say your fixation on personal freedom has become a distraction from much more serious issues that truly shape our world.
There are plenty of good reasons to be opposed to mass surveillance — including the principle that no democratic government should claim the right to spy on its own citizens. But we have less reason to be concerned about intrusions on our privacy than that over-funded intelligence agencies have exploited public fear and manipulated Congress in order to create programs of negligible value.
If mass surveillance is about to quietly die, maybe the lesson that can be drawn is that the threat it supposedly posed and the need it supposedly met, were both wildly overstated.
The NSA’s appetite to gather information has always exceeded its capacity to use it, but the same cannot be said for Google or Facebook. The NSA never was and never could become more than a flea on the back of a digital infrastructure that primarily serves Silicon Valley.
Most of the information that is being gathered about each and every one of us is not being swept up in secret but dished out freely down what we have come to regard as lifelines connecting us to the world.
Rather than being subject to unwanted surveillance, we are far more subject to networks of dependence which affect what we want, what we expect, and how we live.
Big Brother is less inclined to breath down our neck than hold our hand. And if the grip feels too tight it’s because we’re afraid of letting go.
In Iran’s capital Tehran, American journalist Jacob Rezaian is being tried for espionage behind closed doors by a revolutionary court. No-one except his court-appointed attorney was allowed beside him – his wife, who also faces trial for her reporting, and his mother were barred from attending.
Rezaian, an Iranian-American national, is the Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran. Between his imprisonment in July 2014 and the initial trial hearing on Tuesday, he had been allowed only one brief meeting with his attorney. Only weeks before his court appearance, he still did not know the charges.
This story is not unique to Rezaian. It is also the story of Keyvan Samimi, who was recently released after six years behind bars. Or Ahmad Zeidabadi exiled to northern Iran as soon as his sentence ended on May 18. Or Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki, rearrested on February 28 despite poor health from his detention between December 2009 and October 2014. Or Marzieh Rasouli, accused of colluding with the BBC. Or Reyhaneh Tabatabaei, arrested after she expressed support on Facebook for a fellow journalist who had been given a long prison term.
Or scores of other Iranian journalists and bloggers who have been put away, in closed trials and without the semblance of due process, before and after the disputed 2009 presidential election and the mass protests that followed.
Henri J. Barkey writes: The upcoming June 7 parliamentary elections may prove to be far more dramatic than any in Turkey’s recent past. No matter what the outcome, the country is likely to be heading into an unprecedented crisis.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has staked Turkey’s future constitutional order on the outcome of the vote. Erdogan, after 11 years as prime minister with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has assumed the largely ceremonial position of president. While the president is supposed to be impartial, he has been campaigning ferociously in support of his old party because he wants it to win a comfortable majority in parliament — more than 330 seats in the 550-seat parliament, to be precise. Such an outcome will enable him to lay the groundwork for a new political system, which would shift power from the prime minister to a French-style executive president.
Erdogan is a towering figure of Turkish politics. He dominates his party, which in principle is being run by his handpicked prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. He has also succeeded in neutralizing the once dominant force of Turkish politics, the armed forces. He is used to getting what he wants, and brooks no opposition — just ask his erstwhile ally, the religious leader Fethullah Gülen, whose powerful network of schools, media outlets, and business associations in Turkey are being dismantled piece by piece after a falling out with Erdogan.
Polling results have varied quite a bit in this election. The AKP is averaging support in the low 40s, while the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is polling in the mid- to high 20s and the nativist Nationalist Action Party seems likely to receive roughly 13 percent of the vote. It is unlikely, but possible, that the AKP will win fewer than 276 seats, which would force the formation of a coalition government. AKP supporters appear worried and have put together a very aggressive campaign — using state resources for the task, and crowding out the other parties from the airwaves.
What stands in the way of Erdogan and his 330 seats in parliament is the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which represents a significant majority of Turkey’s Kurdish population. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Deep inside a four-story marble building in St. Petersburg, hundreds of workers tap away at computers on the front lines of an information war, say those who have been inside. Known as “Kremlin trolls,” the men and women work 12-hour shifts around the clock, flooding the Internet with propaganda aimed at stamping President Vladimir Putin’s world vision on Russia, and the world.
The Kremlin has always dabbled in propaganda, but in the past year its troll campaign has gone into overdrive, adding hundreds of online operatives to help counter Western pressure over its role in the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The program is drawing Serbia away from its proclaimed EU membership path and closer to the Russian orbit, and is targeting Germany, the United States and other Western powers. The operation has worried the European Union enough to prompt it to draw up a blueprint for fighting Russia’s disinformation campaign, although details have not yet been released.
Lyuda Savchuk, a single mother with two children, worked in the St. Petersburg “troll factory” until mid-March. The 34-year-old journalist said she had some idea of the Orwellian universe she was entering when she took the job, but underestimated its intensity and scope. [Continue reading…]
— David Patrikarakos (@dpatrikarakos) May 27, 2015
FIFA, the notoriously corrupt and yet seemingly invincible governing body of world soccer, has finally landed itself an indictment that some would say is worthy of its reputation. The charges against a handful of senior FIFA officials include money laundering, racketeering, bribery and fraud. In short, the federal lawsuit alleges what millions of soccer fans have suspected all along: that FIFA officials have been using the organization’s massive influence to line their pocketbooks.
On the surface, it’s just another white collar crime story: rich, powerful men making themselves richer and more powerful. But a closer look suggests that there is a lot of real-world suffering happening as a direct result of FIFA’s decisions. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Amid the strip mines and steam plants sprawled across the northern Alberta wilderness, Fort McKay is just a tiny dot on the map.
It is also one of the single biggest source sites of the carbon pollution that is choking the planet.
This tiny First Nations community grew rich on oil, and was wrecked by oil. Local Cece Fitzpatrick grabbed what she saw as a last chance for Fort McKay and decided to run for chief, promising to stand up to the industry which came here 50 years ago. [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera reports: The Dalai Lama has urged fellow Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to help Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority amid a worsening migration crisis.
“It’s very sad. In the Burmese (Myanmar) case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something,” he told The Australian newspaper in an interview published Thursday ahead of a visit to Australia next week.
Despite thousands of Rohingya fleeing on harrowing boat journeys to Southeast Asia to escape poverty and discriminatory treatment by the country’s Buddhist majority, opposition leader Suu Kyi, who is celebrated as a human rights and democracy champion, has not yet commented on their plight.
The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader said she must speak up, adding that he had already appealed to her to do more on their behalf twice, in person, since 2012, when deadly sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state saw violent attacks by Buddhist extremist groups against the Rohingya. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: In 2013, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that in order to restrict the increase of world average temperatures to 2C above pre-industrial times, the world must adopt a strict “carbon budget” for emissions. According to the IPCC, the current rate of fossil fuel burning will exhaust this within 25 years, after which fuels must either be left unexploited, or have their emissions kept from the atmosphere by carbon capture and storage.
India has the world’s fifth-largest coal reserves – and very few cleaner fossil fuels, such as natural gas. Its leaders are also determined to spread the benefits of economic development more widely among its population of almost 1.3bn people – one third of whom still have no access to electricity.
Anil Swarup, the permanent secretary at the coal ministry in Delhi, said in an interview that last year Indian production from both private and state-owned mines was 620m tonnes, more than 85% of it from open-cast workings. A further 400m tonnes were imported. At Singrauli [a coalfield which spans parts of two districts in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh] and elsewhere, he added, production is set to increase rapidly, with strong encouragement from the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which swept to power last year. Modi is determined to restore the sustained GDP growth rate of 8-10% that India enjoyed for a decade until 2011.
“We are looking to double Indian coal production by 2020,” Swarup said, “and to reduce reliance on imports.” Beyond that date, he said production would continue to rise to 1.5bn tonnes a year, with most of this being burnt in coal-fired power plants. In the past six months, the government has given environmental clearance to 41 new mining projects. The consequence, Swarup said, is that from now until 2020, “a new mine will be opened every month. You have to work on the assumption of requirement, and in India, there is a need for power.” [Continue reading…]
In those quarters where the mainstream media is viewed with suspicion if not outright contempt, it’s commonplace to witness a strange anomaly: a handful of mainstream journalists have acquired a hallowed status which results in their reporting being treated as though it possesses unquestionable authority.
This is strange because if one assumes the position of refusing to belong to a flock of “sheep” who blindly believe the mainstream media, it makes no sense to join a different flock of equally uncritical admirers of a few celebrated investigative journalists.
What this anomaly most likely reveals is a lack of critical discernment being directed in any direction. Skepticism and blind faith turn out to be two sides of the same coin. Authority is assigned on the basis of perceived allegiances rather than the integrity of the journalism.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Patrick Cockburn, the Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent, has an eclectic following. He is admired by Noam Chomsky and Rand Paul; and last December, when he won the British equivalent of a Pulitzer for his coverage of Syria and Iraq, the judges declared his journalism in a “league of its own” and wondered “whether the Government should [consider] pensioning off the whole of MI6 and [hire] Patrick Cockburn instead.”
Cockburn is conscious of his exalted position. He frequently admonishes his colleagues against the distortions born of “political bias and simple error.” In his recent book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, he declares, “there is no alternative to first-hand reporting”. He adds: “Journalists rarely fully admit to themselves or others the degree to which they rely on secondary and self-interested sources”.
Journalists rarely admit such things—even those as self-aware as Cockburn is. Consider this gripping, first-hand account of the slaughter of religious minorities by the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that appears on page 89 of his book. “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.
But there is a problem. The atrocity might or might not have happened but Cockburn certainly didn’t witness it. [Continue reading…]
Hassan Hassan writes: The role of clerics in stoking tensions is again under scrutiny in Saudi Arabia. ISIL’s suicide bombing inside a Shia mosque in Al Qudeeh on May 23 has triggered an important debate in the kingdom that should not be missed.
Last year, a similar debate following ISIL’s takeover of Mosul and the subsequent carnage committed in the name of Islam, led many activists in Saudi Arabia to question the roots of such acts. For example, Saudi commentator Ibrahim Al Shaalan tweeted: “ISIL’s actions are but an epitome of what we’ve studied in our school curriculum. If the curriculum is sound, then ISIL is right, and if it is wrong, then who bears responsibility?”
After last weekend’s attack, similar questions have been raised. A day after the bombing, Tariq Al Hamid, a prominent Saudi writer, criticised the sectarian incitement that still spewed in schools and at the pulpit. He said: “What needs to be said, especially after the Al Qudeeh terrorist attack that targeted Saudi Shia nationals, is that the educational, religious, cultural and media discourse in Saudi Arabia must be changed … through laws and regulations. Reform must punish incitement in all forms, at traditional and other pulpits.”
Al Hamid added that reform would prevent a “fertile ground that turns young Saudis into fodder in any battle” taking place in the region. He said that attacks target both Sunnis and Shia in the country, citing the ISIL cell recently uncovered by Saudi authorities, which targeted security officers. Equally important, he echoed a rare admonition of the kingdom’s top clerics by the late King Abdullah about the failure of religious and media figures at speaking out against extremists.
Saudi Gazette’s editor was similarly candid in an article titled “Sectarian divide threatens national security”. He criticised clerics who he said spewed hatred and spread falsehood. “The perpetrators of these murderous acts are driven by an insane ideology disseminated by self-appointed clerics,” he wrote. “For too long, we have kept quiet as they used the mosques, the media … to spread their evil philosophy.” [Continue reading…]
Foreign Policy reports: One reason for the imbalance is military skill and commitment to the fight: the Iraqi security forces that are taking the field are facing off against battle-hardened officers trained under Saddam Hussein who have spent the past 12 years moving in and out of Anbar Province fighting both American and Shiite-led Iraqi forces.
Those former officers, in turn, have been given relative freedom to operate, with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delegating command responsibility to his field commanders, said Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington based nonprofit that develops programs to help Iraqi youth. Having grown up in the Sunni heartland of Anbar, these leaders understand the terrain very well, “and their level of intelligence collection is straight out of the Baath Party playbook. Very precise, very personal,” Ali said.
The ISIS commanders, Ali said, also know the province’s tribes and social structures, helping the group identify which it can be co-opted and which would need to be defeated militarily.
The Islamic State’s advantages on the battlefield represent a long-term unintended byproduct of the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime melted away. A generation of Sunni military expertise was essentially turned out onto the streets and eventually lost to the insurgency. The situation worsened in recent years when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government purged even more experienced Sunni commanders from the security forces and promoted less capable Shiite officers and commanders.
For years, Maliki’s Shiite-led army and police acted as a sectarian militia, brutally suppressing Sunni leadership and taking orders directly from the prime minister, who appointed loyalists and consolidated all military decision making in his own office. Many Sunnis, furious at their treatment, began coalescing around the tribal militias and Islamist groups that eventually evolved into the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]
Amnesty International: Hamas forces carried out a brutal campaign of abductions, torture and unlawful killings against Palestinians accused of “collaborating” with Israel and others during Israel’s military offensive against Gaza in July and August 2014, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
‘Strangling Necks’: Abduction, torture and summary killings of Palestinians by Hamas forces during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict highlights a series of abuses, such as the extrajudicial execution of at least 23 Palestinians and the arrest and torture of dozens of others, including members and supporters of Hamas’s political rivals, Fatah.
“It is absolutely appalling that, while Israeli forces were inflicting massive death and destruction upon the people in Gaza, Hamas forces took the opportunity to ruthlessly settle scores, carrying out a series of unlawful killings and other grave abuses,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
Stephen Kinzer writes: This was to be an extraordinary week in my career and life. It has turned out to be just that — but hardly in the way I expected.
I arrived here [Gaziantep, Turkey] Tuesday morning to receive a great honor. The mayor and city council decided several months ago to make me an honorary citizen in recognition of reporting I did years ago that resulted in saving exquisite Roman mosaics about to be lost to flooding.
A lavish ceremony was planned. Tickets were printed. A professional interpreter was engaged so I would not have to expose my fractured Turkish.
Upon my arrival, however, my acutely embarrassed hosts sat me down and told me the ceremony, and my honorary citizenship, had been cancelled by personal order of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gaziantep’s mayor was given the order while attending a United Nations conference in Paris. Later, according to one of my friends here, Erdogan’s office sent her a fax describing me as “an enemy of our government and our country.” Attached as evidence was a Jan. 4 column I wrote for the Boston Globe that included a critical paragraph about Erdogan.
It said, “Once seen as a skilled modernizer, he now sits in a 1,000-room palace denouncing the European Union, decreeing the arrest of journalists, and ranting against short skirts and birth control.” [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: A Colombian trade union leader is beginning an unprecedented claim for damages against BP in the high court in London, alleging the oil company’s complicity in his kidnap and torture 13 years ago.
Gilberto Torres, 52, was abducted in February 2002 while driving home from an oil-pumping station in Casanare, eastern Colombia, and was released after 42 days, only after workers threatened a national oil strike. The case, which begins on Friday, will throw a spotlight on one of the murkiest periods in Colombia’s history, and the role of big business in it.
His lawyers say that it is the first time a union leader has been able to lodge a claim for human rights abuses against a multinational oil company in the high court. They believe his claim could pave the way for scores more similar actions.
BP denies any involvement. It says it will “vigorously” defend the claim.
Torres tells his story for the first time in a Guardian online documentary. The film includes the extraordinary testimony of his kidnappers when they finally faced trial. [Continue reading…]
Shell’s recent AGM was tumultuous. Shareholders voted overwhelmingly for the company to report on whether its activities were compatible with promised government action on climate change. The firm’s board reportedly faced a sometimes-hostile barrage of questions about its approach to the environment.
The key question shareholders are asking is this: what if the majority of Shell’s proven fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to avoid a dangerous global temperature increase of more than 2°C? Shell’s proved reserves are the company’s biggest asset against which it borrows money from banks and attracts investments from shareholders.
Most of the oil and gas majors are struggling to find enough new reserves to keep growing in the future. This is why Shell and all other major players in the industry have to go to more extreme lengths to find the fossil fuels that keep our lights on, cars on the road and their profits growing. Controversial and environmentally very suspect investments into Arctic oil drilling, US shale gas and Canadian tar sands have already tarnished the environmental credentials of Shell.
But Shell needs to find more oil and gas to keep its asset base growing and its profit potential intact. So it agreed to buy UK-based oil and gas exploration group BG Group for a staggering £47bn. To quote recent analysis, this “gives Shell a presence in the productive zone off the coast of Brazil, and will ensure that Shell’s own production is maintained over the medium term, taking away the requirement to make large discoveries to offset natural depletion”.
But now an entirely new threat hangs over Shell’s future viability as a leading fossil fuel company. A high-profile campaign has argued that most of the proven reserves by oil and gas majors are “stranded assets” – something Shell has denied in the past. This would render Shell’s acquisition of BG Group and its investments in the Arctic wasted capital.
Frontline: In August of 2013, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus was attacked with sarin gas — a nerve agent that causes lung muscle paralysis and results in death from suffocation.
The attack killed 1,400 men, women and children, and at the White House, officials asserted “with high confidence” that the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible.
One year earlier, President Barack Obama had described Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” and “change my calculus” on American military intervention in Syria’s civil war.
When Assad appeared to cross that line, Obama ordered the Pentagon to prepare to attack.
“Our finger was on the trigger,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith in Tuesday’s new documentary, Obama at War. “We had everything in place and we were just waiting for instructions to proceed.”
But as FRONTLINE details in the below excerpt from Obama at War, the president had second thoughts. [Continue reading…]
Tom Mehager writes: Israeli non-profit organizations that strive for a society based on coexistence most often focus on the most pressing issues vis-a-vis Jewish-Arab relations: educating toward democratic values, mutual recognition and teaching the Arabic language; equal allocation of resources and land; integration into the workforce and strengthening economic investment in Arab towns and villages; proper representation in decision-making processes; legitimacy for Arabic in the public sphere; changing state symbols, and more. In this respect, these organizations are making important conversations.
But what those same organizations, which demand equality between Jews and Arabs, do not speak about or deal with is the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. 1948 is the elephant standing in the center of the room. Many of our Palestinian colleagues in these organizations come from families who were uprooted from their homeland, with much of their nation still living in the diaspora.
I do not want to speak in the name of Palestinians and claim that they want to open up a conversation with us, Jewish Israelis, about the right of return. But I do want to ask why it is that we never raise questions about 1948 when speaking of a life of coexistence or about our vision of equality.
Jews realized and continue to realize their right of return in the wake of several historic events: most of us are here after 2,000 years of exile, as per the Zionist movement’s definition, due to the Law of Return, which allows the Jews of the world to receive Israeli citizenship. Moreover, many young Israelis who are the grandchildren of the victims of World War II have obtained citizenship in their grandparents’ countries of origin in Europe. And let’s not forget that the government of Spain has announced that it will allow the descendants of the victims of the expulsions in the 15th century to apply for Spanish citizenship. Thus, if we believe in true equality between Jews and Arabs, we must support the right of return for Palestinians to their homeland. [Continue reading…]