In The Hot Seat
July 23, 2021
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“We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” — Barack Obama
In The Hot Seat
There is an old joke about living in Seattle: you will know more people with a boat than people with air conditioning. The image of the Pacific Northwest has always been one of rugged beauty, forward-thinking politics, and a comfortable climate — which might explain why Seattle was last year’s fastest-growing U.S. city.
But sustained drought conditions, unusual heatwaves, and devastating wildfires have people worried. The heat dome that settled over the West Coast in June has caused record-breaking temperatures from Montana to Southern California, spoiling berry crops, killing hundreds of people, and sending hundreds more to overcrowded hospitals. The stifling heat buckled road surfaces, melted power lines, and closed restaurants. Slightly north off the coast of Vancouver, an estimated one billion marine creatures perished, helpless mussels and clams cooking in their own shells.
Excessive heat is just one component of California’s catastrophic wildfires. For decades critics of Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) have said greed and mismanagement put profits before maintenance of a power grid servicing 16 million people over a 70,000 square mile area. The deadliest and most destructive blaze in the state’s history was the Camp Fire in November 2018. That fire scorched 153,336 acres, killed 85 people, and destroyed almost 19,000 structures and most of the Northern California town of Paradise. In May 2019, investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) announced that the Camp Fire was started in two locations by sparks from PG&E electrical transmission lines during a period of high winds.
The news didn’t surprise officials in Butte County and elsewhere. PG&E has been blamed for over 1,500 fires since 2014. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after being inundated with lawsuits. But in June 2020, the San Francisco-based utility was allowed to exit bankruptcy after providing a prioritized “corrective action plan” and pledging to pay $13.5 billion to compensate victims for losses not covered by their insurance. That same month, PG&E’s CEO and President Bill Johnson appeared in Butte County Superior Court and pleaded guilty to 84 separate counts of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of unlawfully starting the Camp Fire.
In April 2021, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) determined PG&E had failed to properly carry out its promised wildfire mitigation work, and the company was placed into “an enhanced oversight and enforcement process.” PG&E continues hemorrhaging money for fire damage caused by its long-neglected power grid. In May, the company agreed to pay $43.4 million to compensate government agencies in three Northern California counties for leftover bills from the last two years of wildfires. This month, PG&E stepped up its safety commitment, just days after informing regulators a 70-foot pine tree fell on one of its power lines on July 13 and ignited the Dixie Fire in Butte County, a major fire that as of Monday had burned 90,000 acres.
On Wednesday, PG&E announced it would bury 10,000 miles (10%) of its power lines, at a projected cost of $15 billion to $30 billion, in an effort to prevent its fraying electrical equipment from sparking more wildfires after coming into contact with millions of trees and other vegetation across drought-stricken California. Most of the costs are likely to be passed along to PG&E customers, whose electricity rates are already among the highest in America. (Guardian, USA Today, NPR)
America Strikes Taliban
- The violence in Afghanistan is surging as the Taliban continues capturing territory and equipment. Although the withdrawal of U.S. troops is more than 95% complete, the military has retained the authority to carry out strikes in support of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) during the final stages. The pace of these strikes has decreased in recent weeks. Just about six or seven strikes have been launched in the past 30 days, mostly by using drones.
- Early Thursday, two more strikes were carried out in Kandahar province; the strikes targeted U.S. equipment that had been transferred to the ANDSF, then captured by the Taliban as it advances through the country. President Biden has said troop withdrawal will be complete by August 31, except for some 650 troops. Those remaining troops are to secure U.S. diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, including the embassy, and to assist in securing Kabul’s international airport, which is a necessary facility for the movement of diplomats.
- The administration is preparing to evacuate the first 2,500 Afghan interpreters and their families who are in the final phases of applying for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to move to America. Many more thousands of vulnerable Afghans who helped U.S. troops over the years remain in peril, stranded by bureaucracy. (CNN, WaPo)
Hong Kong In The Wrong
- On Thursday, Hong Kong police arrested two men and three women in their 20s on suspicion of conspiring to publish “seditious material,” with the intent of inciting public hatred among children towards the Chinese-ruled city’s government. The colonial-era law on sedition was rarely used before anti-government protests began in the former British colony. First convictions carry a prison term of up to two years.
- Steve Li, a senior superintendent of the National Security department, said those arrested were members of a speech therapists’ union who produced books for children with wolves and sheep as characters in stories. “They are using children’s cartoons to simplify and beautify illegal behavior on political issues,” he said. “They are poisoning our children.” Li urged parents and shops that stock the books to throw them away. Security officials brazenly stated the law enforcement action is “based on evidence” and has “nothing to do” with an individual’s political stance, background, or profession. (NBC News)
Additional World News
- More than 600,000 people told to isolate by NHS Covid-19 app (BBC)
- YouTube Deletes Bolsonaro Videos as Covid Misinformation (NYT, $)
- Brazil’s scandal-plagued President may face a reckoning as lawmakers consider impeachment (CNN)
- China says it is shocked by WHO plan for Covid origins study (Politico)
- France making “COVID pass” mandatory for most leisure activities (CBS)
- Scoop: After Erdoğan call, Israel reassures Greece (Axios)
- Leader of Tanzania’s main opposition party arrested (Yahoo)
- Shiawassee County, Michigan, is a mostly-rural county between Lansing and Flint with a population of 68,000. Last week, the county’s elected commissioners in Corunna, the county seat, voted to award more than $500,000 in Covid-19 relief money from the federal government to county employees. The commissioners, all Republicans, called it “hazard pay.”
- The awards ranged from $25,000 for administrators to $2,000 for cleaning staff. All recipients got at least $1,000. One commissioner said of the bonus “I think I’ve earned it,” while another was “mortified” when it appeared in her bank account and didn’t know she’d voted to reward herself. “I’m giving the money back,” she said.
- Most commissioners are paid $10,000 a year for their part-time job, plus a stipend for meetings. Nichole Ruggiero of Owosso, the largest city in Shiawassee County, filed a lawsuit to try to rescind some bonuses, claiming commissioners violated Michigan’s open meetings law when they went into closed session to discuss the money. “The arrogance of this board is outlandish,” Ruggiero said. (ABC News)
Spread Like Campfire
- Camp Pontiac is a 7-week co-ed sleepaway camp in Copake, NY. It’s located at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, about a two-hour drive from New York City. Camp Pontiac has 550 campers from all over the country; about half are 7 to 11 years old, and half are between 12 and 17. Last week, the facility began testing campers who were showing symptoms of coronavirus; the first positive result came one week ago.
- Since then, 31 campers between 7 and 11 years old have tested positive for Covid-19; none of the vaccinated 12-and-up campers tested positive for the virus. The director of Columbia County’s Department of Health said all but a few of the positive cases were sent home, along with 88 contacts. The few that remain on campus “live too far away to go home easily,” he said. (CNN)
Additional USA News
- Former Rep. Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa (Politico)
- Biden’s domestic terrorism strategy concerns advocates (Politico)
- Surfside victims will not be asked to donate their real estate for the public good, judge says (CNN)
- Hong Kong pro-democracy activists beg Congress for refugee status (Politico)
- Tucker Carlson says US Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn is an angry left-wing political activist (WaPo, $)
- McCarthy pulls his 5 GOP members from 1/6 committee after Pelosi rejects 2 of his picks (CNN)
- Biden says CDC will advise unvaccinated kids to wear masks in school (The Hill)
A Chimp On Your Shoulder
Gorillas are very close to humans on the family tree. We share 98.4% of our DNA. Only chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related, sharing 98.8% of DNA with humans. The strong similarities between humans and the African great apes led Charles Darwin in 1871 to predict that Africa was the likely place where the human lineage branched off from other animals — in other words, the place where the common ancestor of chimpanzees, humans, and gorillas once lived. DNA evidence now confirms what 150 years ago was an outrageously daring theory. A professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington said: “My motivation in studying human and great ape genomes is to try to learn what makes us tick as a species.”
Chimpanzees and gorillas normally coexist peacefully where their ranges overlap in the rainforests of Central Africa. The two ape species typically avoid one another, and even feed on the same fruit trees, without conflict. In early 2019, Simone Pika, a cognitive biologist at Osnabrück University and another scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, were following a massive group of 27 chimpanzees at a national park on the west coast of Central Africa. The research team was part of a long-term study into chimp behavior in Gabon’s Loango National Park.
On February 6, the men observed something no one had seen before: the chimps attacked a party of five western lowland gorillas, three adult females and one infant, led by a male silverback. The silverback fought hard but ultimately was overwhelmed by the chimps, who captured the group’s infant and beat it to death. The same group of chimpanzees attacked gorillas again in December 2019 and killed another infant gorilla.
Pika suggests the attacks might be driven by food competition. Fruit is scarce for chimps and gorillas in February and December, when the attacks occurred, so there is increased competition for it. Climate change is also reducing the amount of fruit available in the Gabon rainforest, something that could be creating even more competition, and therefore driving these aggressive interactions. Either way, the attacks “tells us something about the violent potential of chimps,” Pika said. The research team will continue investigating possible causes of the chimps’ violent behavior. Then again, it seems they could get all the answers they need just from what we know about human behavior. (WaPo, Live Science)
- IRS Warning On Child Tax Credit Scams (NPR)
- Self-proclaimed ‘incel’ planned to kill sorority girls at an Ohio university, feds say (WaPo, $)
- Men’s Spending Habits Result In More Carbon Emissions Than Women’s, A Study Finds (NPR)
- The FTC Votes Unanimously to Enforce Right to Repair (Wired)
- Argentina creates an ID for nonbinary people (CNN)
- Astronomers spy first moon-forming disk around an exoplanet (CNN)
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