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Earth Day

Cartoon by David Horsey

7 things we’ve learned about Earth since the last Earth Day

Vox: Earth Day turns 48 this Sunday, April 22, and Google is celebrating it with a Google Doodle of conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, who nudges us in a video a “do our part for this beautiful planet.”

When Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.) founded Earth Day in 1970, his hope was to make the environment a political issue in an era where US rivers caught on fire and thick smog choked cities.

In many ways, it worked. Since then, major environmental laws have helped clean up much of the vivid toxic detritus in the soil, air, and water in the US. But our challenges today are no less daunting. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the loss of wilderness and species, and the acidification and pollution of the oceans have all become more acute — and more destabilizing.

In keeping with the tradition started by former Vox writers Brad Plumer and Joseph Stromberg, here are seven of the most troubling, intriguing, and encouraging things we learned about the Earth since the last Earth Day.

1) The plastic problem is even worse than we thought

One of the bleakest stories of the year so far was the report of a six-ton sperm whale washing up on the shores of southern Spain with 64 pounds of plastic in its stomach, a grotesque sign of the alarming rate at which we’re dumping plastics into the ocean.

The plastic crisis is a truly global one, and the numbers are staggering: A 2015 study found that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic makes it into the ocean from land each year. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight.

Since plastic is synthetic, there are few natural processes that break it down, allowing bags, straws, and packaging to linger for decades if not centuries. And we’re not very good at containing it to landfills. About 32 percent of plastics make out into nature, where it often end up in the bellies of fish, birds, and whales. And, as it turns out, potentially in our stomachs too.

In one investigation, the nonprofit Orb Media found plastic fibers in 83 percent of drinking water samples all over the world, with some of the highest levels in drinking fountains at the US Capitol. In a separate investigation published this year, it found microplastic particles in 93 percent of the bottled water samples it tested (250 bottles from 11 leading brands including Dasani and Aquafina).

These kinds of findings have prompted environmental activists pushing to reduce or end the use of disposable plastics. Curbing plastic pollution is a key theme in this year’s Earth Day and there’s a high-profile campaign underway to ban plastic straws in particular.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May called this week to ban plastic straws, swabs, and stirrers. Some researchers last year openly called for an international agreement to control plastic pollution. And there was one bit of hopeful news for potentially more effective disposal in the future: scientists have discovered an enzyme that can digest plastic.

2) We lost the last male Northern white Rhino

Another benchmark we’re obliged to revisit each Earth Day is how many species we’ve lost forever.

In December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the beaverpond marstonia, a tiny freshwater snail found in Georgia, to be extinct. The Center for Biological Diversity called it the first species declared extinct under the Trump administration, a consequence of water overuse for agriculture and pollution.

Also in the last year, the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, a bat found off the coast of Australia, was declared extinct. Three reptiles also went extinct on the island, including the chained gecko, the blue-tailed skink, and the whiptail skink, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Much of this is due to disease and predatory invasive species.

And some species are teetering on the brink of extinction. The last male Northern White Rhino, Sudan, died in March at the age of 45.

As the Northern White rhinos have been rapidly decimated by poaching, conservationists have tried desperate tactics to resuscitate them, including creating a Tinder profile for Sudan. The more viable strategy now is in vitro fertilization of a female Southern White Rhino with the eggs from the two remaining Northern White Rhino females and stored northern white rhino semen >>>

Call the police

Cartoon by Michael Ramirez

Black men arrested at Philadelphia Starbucks feared for their lives 

The Guardian: Two black men arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks said they were just waiting for a business meeting – and a week later still wonder how that could have escalated into a police encounter that left them fearing for their lives.

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson spoke to the Associated Press in their first interview since video of their 12 April arrests went viral.

Robinson said he thought about his loved ones and how the afternoon had taken such a turn as he was taken to jail. Nelson wondered if he would make it home alive.

“Anytime I’m encountered by cops, I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind,” Nelson said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

The arrests, recorded on a white customer’s cellphone video, galvanized people around the country who saw the exchange as an example of racism.

The men have met with the CEO of Starbucks and are pushing for meaningful change so what happened to them does not happen to anyone else.

Police this week released a recording of the call from the Starbucks employee that led to the arrest. In it, a woman is heard saying the men refused to “make a purchase or leave”.

Starbucks has promised to shut all 8,000 company-owned stores across the US on 29 May to train employees about unconscious bias.

Nelson initially brushed it off when the Starbucks manager told him he couldn’t use the restroom because he wasn’t a paying customer.

He thought nothing of it when he and Robinson, his business partner, were approached at their table and were asked if they needed help. The 23-year-old entrepreneurs declined, explaining they were just waiting for a business meeting.

A few minutes later, they hardly noticed when the police walked into the coffee shop until officers started walking in their direction.

“That’s when we knew she called the police on us,” Nelson said.

Nelson and Robinson, black men who became best friends in the fourth grade, were taken in handcuffs from the Starbucks in Philadelphia’s tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, where Robinson has been a customer since he was 15 >>>

Oil Wealth

Cartoonist: Ali Shafei علی شافعی

 

Syria Showdown

Cartoon by Amos Biderman

This Is Not a Drill: Syria Showdown Could Spark Israeli-Iranian and U.S.-Russian Clashes 

Haaretz: This is not a drill, as Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear to his cabinet colleagues on Wednesday. The situation in Israel’s north is tense and explosive. After seven years of horrid civil war, Syria is turning into a confrontation zone between Israel and Iran, on the regional level, and Russia and the West, on the global level. The expected American retaliation for the chemical weapon attack carried out last weekend at Douma can start a chain reaction that could lead to escalation, if not conflagration.

Russia’s tone has changed. Moscow has uncharacteristically and harshly chastised Israel for its bombing of the suspected Iranian installation in Syria’s T-4 air base near Palmyra. The Kremlin has unusually and pointedly warned the United States not to carry out a punitive raid against its client Syria, explicitly threatening to intercept U.S. missiles.

Such challenges, even if only meant as bluster, can easily turn into self-fulfilling ultimatums that obligate Vladimir Putin to act.

Iran hopes to capitalize on the newfound Russian bellicosity. Just as a diplomatic deal between Washington and Moscow on Syria’s future would necessarily include severe limitations on the Iranian presence in Syria, tensions if not open hostility between the two powers could provide a cover for Iran to accelerate its efforts to entrench its forces and militias wherever possible. Putin’s natural inclination to rein in Iranian activities in Syria could be offset by his wish to poke Washington in the eye in response to a possible U.S. strike on Syria. And Tehran, one assumes, would be delighted to provoke an Israeli-Russian confrontation.

Israel, for its part, has stated and restated that Iranian expansion into Syria is a red line that should not be crossed. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel would act against Iranian infringements, as it reportedly has in the bombing of T-4, “no matter what the price.” Netanyahu is certainly wary of exacerbating tensions with Moscow but is unlikely to back away from his defense minister’s threats. And in a faceoff between Putin and Donald Trump, Netanyahu will no doubt side with the latter and thus potentially infuriate the former. Future Israeli incursions into Syria could very well meet a far more dangerous Russian response.

Syrian President Assad should be the last person interested in turning Syria into a battleground for outside powers. He is about to emerge victorious from a deadly 7-year challenge that was supposed to finish him off, and to start rebuilding his country and reconsolidating his grip on power. Then again, Assad may no longer be the restrained and calculating leader he was thought to be before he managed to turn the tables on his formidable adversaries. His alleged decision to launch a major chemical attack, which he must have known would lead to international outrage - in a region that was about to fall to his forces anyway - may indicate that Assad’s triumph has gone to his head.

Turkey is its own basket case. Ankara detests Assad and is also opposed to Iranian expansion, but its overriding interest is to contain and control rebellious Kurds in northern Syria and western Iraq. To this end, Turkish leader Tayip Erdogan has cultivated ties to Putin, despite their apparently conflicting objectives and interests in Syria. If hostilities break out, Turkey could find itself caught in the crossfire, even if it is simply trying to sit on the fence while whacking the Kurds when no one is looking.

Which brings us to the known unknown, Donald Trump, the joker in the pack. His statements and tweets leave no doubt that the U.S. intends to strike Syria very soon, with or without allies. Trump and his advisers certainly view the nerve gas attack at Douma as a direct challenge and provocation to the United States that mandates a forceful response. Suspicious minds in Washington are also concerned, however, that Trump might use the cover of tensions with Syria, Iran and Russia to carry out his long sought goal of dismissing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a wish made doubly fervent by the recent FBI raid on the offices of his lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen. Trump’s flippant and arrogant Wednesday morning challenge to Moscow – “Get ready Russia, because [the missiles] will be coming, nice and new and “smart!””| - does not inspire confidence in the ability of the leader of the Western world to navigate the treacherous minefield awaiting him with discretion and cool-headedness >>>

ATM

Get well

The End

Cartoon by Glenn McCoy

How Syria’s Death Toll Is Lost in the Fog of War

The New York Times: In seven years, the casualties of Syria’s civil war have grown from the first handful of protesters shot by government forces to hundreds of thousands of dead.

But as the war has dragged on, growing more diffuse and complex, many international monitoring groups have essentially stopped counting.

Even the United Nations, which released regular reports on the death toll during the first years of the war, gave its last estimate in 2016 — when it relied on 2014 data, in part — and said that it was virtually impossible to verify how many had died.

At that time, a United Nations official said 400,000 people had been killed.

But so many of the biggest moments of the war have happened since then. In the past two years, the government of President Bashar al-Assad, with Russia’s help, laid siege to residential areas of Aleppo, once the country’s second-largest city, and several other areas controlled by opposition groups, leveling entire neighborhoods. Last weekend, dozens of people died in a suspected chemical attack on a Damascus suburb.

American-led forces bombed the Islamic State in large patches of eastern Syria, in strikes believed to have left thousands dead. And dozens of armed groups, including fighters backed by Iran, have continued to clash, creating a humanitarian catastrophe that the world is struggling to measure.

Historically, these numbers matter, experts say, because they can have a direct impact on policy, accountability and a global sense of urgency. The legacy of the Holocaust has become inextricably linked with the figure of six million Jews killed in Europe. The staggering death toll of the Rwandan genocide — one million Tutsis killed in 100 days — is seared into the framework of that nation’s reconciliation process.

Without a clear tally of the deaths, advocates worry that the conflict will simply grind on indefinitely, without a concerted international effort to end it.

“We know from conflicts around the world that we can’t have any sustainable peace if we don’t have accountability,” said Anna Nolan, director of The Syria Campaign, a human rights advocacy group. “The most critical thing to understand in that situation is who is being killed and who is doing that killing, and without that information we can’t expect the people involved in resolving this conflict to come to the right decisions.”

Meanwhile, local monitoring groups keep the best estimates they can.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, the founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said there were “tens of incidents daily” that raise the death toll, and that monitoring was needed to one day hold perpetrators accountable for potential war crimes.

Despite the challenges of access and verification, he sees value in the assessment his group makes, even though he knows they are not perfect.

“This work, what we are doing, we are doing this mainly for our people, for our community, for history itself,” Mr. Ghany said. “So we are recording these reports in order to say, on this day, in 2018, these people have been killed and because of this, and in this area.”

He believes figures will be vital if peace comes to his country in establishing transitional justice >>>

Smart Missile

Guilty

Cartoon by Clay Bennett

This was not just any search warrant

The Washington Post: When your lawyers need lawyers, it’s usually a bad sign. When your lawyers have their offices and homes raided, it’s a really bad sign. News that federal investigators on Monday took the extraordinary step of executing a search warrant at the legal office of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal attorney, indicates that Cohen is suddenly in serious legal jeopardy of his own. And although the investigation is not directly related to the Mueller probe, it’s yet another example of the legal walls closing in on one of the people closest to Trump — someone who may have a wealth of information about the president’s own conduct.

The FBI executed the search warrants at Cohen’s New York office and his home and hotel room. The warrants were obtained by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. According to a statement from Cohen’s attorney, prosecutors informed him their investigation is, “in part,” based on a referral from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

The first thing to note about this striking development is that the warrant was not obtained by Mueller himself. Whatever the subject matter of this particular investigation, it apparently falls outside of Mueller’s jurisdiction and thus resulted in his referral to the New York prosecutors. So we know the potential crimes that led to the search today do not directly relate to Mueller’s inquiry into any conspiracy with Russians to influence the election or related crimes such as obstruction of the special counsel’s investigation.

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney, is under federal investigation. The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger explains what you need to know. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

We also know that a search warrant, unlike a grand jury subpoena, requires prosecutors to go before a federal judge to demonstrate probable cause that a crime has been committed and evidence of that crime can be found in the premises to be searched. Before approving a search of a lawyer’s office, a judge would want to be satisfied that there was some substance behind the prosecutors’ allegations. This is not just some prosecutorial fishing expedition; it bears the imprimatur of a federal judge.

We don’t know for certain the nature of the Southern District’s investigation. The potential crime outside of Mueller’s jurisdiction to which Cohen has been linked most directly relates to the $130,000 payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels just days before the presidential election. If Cohen made that payment himself or facilitated the payment from another individual or company, it could be deemed an illegal contribution to Trump’s campaign. There could be other alleged offenses, such as tax or bank fraud violations, surrounding any such payments as well. Or there could be other non-Stormy-Daniels-related allegations about Cohen’s conduct that have not yet surfaced publicly.

This was not just any search warrant; that the raid took place at a lawyer’s office further highlights the seriousness of the investigation. Searches of an attorney’s office are extremely rare and are not favored, due to their potential to impinge on the attorney-client relationship. Prosecutors must jump through multiple hoops to get such a warrant approved, both within their own office and at the criminal division of Main Justice. (Notably, this would likely have included approval by Trump’s own guy, the new interim U.S. attorney for the Southern District, Geoffrey S. Berman, who was just appointed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions this past January.)

Prosecutors are also required to consider less intrusive alternatives to a search warrant, such as a subpoena, if practical. Approval of a search warrant suggests prosecutors were able to demonstrate not only the gravity of the potential case but also the risk that evidence might be destroyed or otherwise go missing if they pursued a less aggressive option >>>

Chemical Assad

Cartoon by Bob Gorrell

Douma inhabitants prepare to leave after deadly chemical attack

The Guardian: Rebel fighters and civilians have begun preparing to leave the besieged town of Douma near the Syrian capital of Damascus after a chemical weapons attack over the weekend killed dozens and drew worldwide condemnation.

Buses expected to transport local rebels and residents to their forced exile in northern Syria began arriving in the early hours of Monday, after negotiators announced a deal had been reached in the immediate aftermath of the suspected toxic gas attack, which killed at least 42 people.

“I am leaving tomorrow, God willing, because our mission has ended,” said a paramedic who treated the chemical attack victims. “I am saying thank God that the mass killings are over, but I am saddened that I will leave my land and my people, possibly never to return. But I will leave knowing that I gave everything I could until the end.

“I will take the memories of my home that was bombed and some photographs. All I will carry is two suitcases, but in my mind and my memory is so much of what we lived through.”

Douma is home to more than 100,000 civilians, according to UN estimates. It is the largest town in eastern Ghouta, a region that was once the breadbasket of the Damascus region but has been besieged for years by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Tens of thousands of people have already fled other parts of Ghouta after a two-month bombardment that has killed nearly 2,000, and other rebel groups have agreed to surrender deals that allow their exile to northern Syria.

A similar deal for Douma had foundered in recent days over the insistence of the local rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, that it wanted to stay in the city.

But after the alleged chemical attack, which followed an intense bombardment that began on Friday and appeared aimed at forcing a deal, negotiators said they had reached an agreement that would allow the exile of fighters and those who wish to leave from among the civilians.

Under the terms of the deal, those who choose to stay behind are supposed to be protected by Russia from prosecution and will reconcile with the Assad regime, and will not be called upon to do mandatory military service for six months. Russian military police are supposed to deploy in Douma to act as a guarantor of the agreement.

Civilians and fighters are expected to be transported to Jarablus, a town near the Turkish border that is controlled by Ankara-backed rebel fighters who reclaimed it from Islamic State last year. Similar forced displacement deals have taken place all over Syria.

“I am now spending my last farewell moments with my city, Douma, and I am leaving it hoping to return one day,” said an activist who planned to leave on Tuesday aboard the buses. “The bombing and destruction that we lived through for seven years has been concluded. All the masks have fallen. We only left to save those who remained from the women and children >>>

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