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To understand California’s climate-change challenge, look no further than its popular ride-hailing companies.

Uber, Lyft and other companies make up a tiny piece of the biggest greenhouse-gas polluter in the state: transportation. Yet their contribution to climate-warming emissions is outsized, drawing attention from researchers and lawmakers and raising an ambitious question: How can the state rein in emissions from gig economy companies built on drivers who own their vehicles?

The latest strike against Uber and Lyft comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that published a report in late February showing ride-hailing trips release 69 percent more climate-warming emissions than the walking, biking, transit and other car trips they displace. The findings support California’s own analysis, which concluded ride-hailing increases carbon dioxide pollution by 50 percent for every mile a passenger travels, compared to when they drive themselves.

The state took action in 2018, passing a first-of-its-kind law to curb that carbon pollution. It tasked the California Air Resources Board with setting targets to increase electric-vehicle miles within ride-hailing companies and to cut carbon dioxide for every mile a ride-hailing passenger travels. The California Public Utilities Commission must then enforce those rules when they take effect, which is slated for 2023.

California’s cars, trucks, planes and trains produce about 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Ride-hailing makes up a small fraction of that, accounting for 1.2 percent of the miles Californians travel by car. Still, the issue illustrates a much bigger challenge, said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a member of California’s air board.

“In some cases, we’re picking on them, with laws and rules like this. But on the other hand, it’s kind of a first step towards doing good, sustainable transportation policy,” Sperling told CalMatters. “They’re the guinea pigs.”


Why Is California Regulating Ride-Hailing?

Ride-hailing vehicles don’t pollute more than the rest of the cars in the state, but the distance they travel between rides makes them a problem, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the air board.

In fact, the ride-hailing fleet is more fuel-efficient on average, since it tends to consist of newer cars, more hybrids and more passenger cars rather than light trucks, according to a December report from the Air Resources Board.

While travelers driving themselves tend to go directly to a location, those working for ride-hailing companies drive extra miles between ride requests, or on the way to pick up a passenger. Those extra miles—when the driver is alone in the car—are called “deadhead miles,” and they make up almost 40 percent of the distance driven by ride-hailing vehicles.

For some drivers, that number is even greater.

“I’m a part-time driver, and I only drive during high demand times, like Friday night, right? And still, I would say that I have about a 50 or 60 percent occupancy rate,” said Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver and organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. “On a Friday night in the middle of Hollywood, I’ll have an empty car for like half an hour. Then I’ll get a 10-minute ride, and that’s it.”

Though ride-hailing makes up a small fraction of all California car miles, its impact is visible. Ride-hailing alone is responsible for about half of San Francisco’s rise in traffic congestion from 2010 to 2016, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. And it’s growing—while rides with taxis, ride-hailing and car-sharing make up less than 5 percent of vehicle miles traveled globally today, that number could be 19 percent by 2040, a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected.

“We know that that sector is growing,” said Joshua Cunningham, branch chief of advanced clean cars at the Air Resources Board. “Putting in a regulation to start controlling those emissions is really important.”


Setting Statewide Goals

That’s where the law requiring the air board to set carbon dioxide and electrification standards for ride-hailing fleets comes in. Authored by Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, it also tasks the California Public Utilities Commission with enforcing the rules and requires the ride-hailing companies to figure out how to meet them.

“We’re serious about our environmental impact,” Uber representative Austin Heyworth said at a recent air board meeting, where he expressed Uber’s support for the law and the air board’s efforts. Lyft, in a statement, said it is “striving to make every ride 100 percent electric over time.”

Others, however, are pushing a more ambitious strategy: electrify within the decade.

Environmental groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists and Sierra Club California urged the board at a January 23 meeting to evaluate what it would take to fully electrify ride-hailing fleets by 2030. The board directed staff to look into it.

Achieving zero-emission fleets, however, could be complicated in the gig economy. Because drivers typically own the vehicles they use, “fleet costsfall directly on the driver—gas, electricity, maintenance, everything and the cost of the vehicle,” said part-time Lyft driver Moore. Ride-hailing companies will have to curb emissions from cars they don’t even own.

It’s not the first time California’s heard this full-electrification idea. An early version of the 2018 bill included a requirement that ride-hailing companies shift to all zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Uber and Lyftlobbied successfully to remove it, citing concerns that low-income drivers would not be able to afford an electric vehicle, according to Streetsblog California.

Skinner said she wants to see the board take bold action in setting standards that will help clean California’s air and combat climate change.

“I want them to set the most ambitious goals possible and feasible,” Skinner said.

Still, air board staffer Cunningham called 100 percent electrification an “aggressive target.” While Cunningham was reluctant to speculate about the staff’s final assessment, he said in an email to CalMatters, “it is unlikely staff will determine that 100 percent electrification in 2030 is feasible.”


What’s Next?

Electrification is not the only way to decrease ride-hailing emissions. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report also advocates for increasing shared rides and incentivizing trips that connect to public transit or bike or scooter shares.

Promoting connections to public transit is something the California Air Resources Board already is talking about. One idea is to reward ride-hailing companies for voluntarily connecting to transit or other low-carbon forms of transportation, like scooters or bikes, by giving them “regulatory credits” that count toward their emissions requirements, Cunningham said.

Gregory Erhardt, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, said there are “a lot of good reasons to be skeptical” of the notion that ride-hailing benefits public transit, however. Erhardt, who has studied public transportation ridership, said ride-hailing discourages commuters from using public transit and fills the road with more cars.

After hitting a peak in 2014, transit ridership in the United States began to decline. “Now, that drop-off is strange, because this is during a period in which the economy is strong; there are more jobs; and it’s during a period in which transit agencies are really expanding their service,” Erhardt said. “We would expect ridership to be going up and not down.”

Ride-hailing may have played a part: Erhardt found that public-transit ridership decreased when ride-hailing was introduced to an area, according to a study published in 2019. (A recent uptick in national transit ridership can be attributed to isolated growth in the New York City and Washington, D.C., regions, but even there, the cities didn’t beat their record high numbers.)

While the Union of Concerned Scientists study concedes that “today, ride-hailing competes with and draws riders away from mass transit,” it argues that the companies could promote connections to it. In some areas, Lyft and Uber provide information in apps about public-transit options, and in Denver, travelers can pay for public-transit rides through the Uber app, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists report.

Erhardt said the new report offered “promising paths forward.” To make these happen, however, the companies likely will need a push. In California, as the Air Resources Board crafts its regulation, the coming year will determine just how far the state will go to address the climate impact of ride-hailing.

“There’s not an incentive, without that regulatory push,” Erhardt said. “That’s the sort of lever that we need to incentivize people to change their behavior, both the companies and the travelers.”


‘You Have to Pull Drivers Up’

Don Anair, research and deputy director of the clean vehicles program with the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the recent report, said the responsibility to address ride-hailing emissions “squarely falls on the companies.” Even though they do not own the fleet vehicles, Uber and Lyft could incentivize drivers to buy or lease electric cars, he said. He also suggested the companies encourage pooled rides by adjusting prices so more passengers want to share a trip.

Some ride-hailing companies already are experimenting with initiatives to make zero-emission vehicles more available to drivers. Last year, Lyft launched an electric-vehicle rental program for drivers in Denver with a fleet of electric Kias. Rental prices increase with distance driven, starting at $230 a week.

Part-time Lyft driver Moore called these rental programs the “indentured servitude of the rideshare” because of how long it takes to earn enough money to pay off the rental fee. Representatives for Lyft and the Union of Concerned Scientists told CalMatters these rental programs could lower barriers to driving cleaner cars.

With time, the price of electric vehicles will go down, Anair said, and more used electric vehicles will enter the market. But right now, the steep up-front cost makes them unaffordable for some drivers, even though maintenance and fuel generally are cheaper than for gasoline vehicles.

That’s why Moore said that focusing solely on the cars won’t be enough. Moore drives a hybrid now, and it’s the first new car she’s ever bought. If she had to buy an electric vehicle, she “would have to quit driving and find another way to pay the bills,” Moore said. “You have to pull drivers up at the same time you pull standards up for their cars.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

On this week's record-breaking weekly Independent comics page: The K Chronicles takes a tongue-in-cheek look at Christmas in SoCal; This Modern World looks at GOP "reality"; Jen Sorensen waits for technology to solve climate change; Apoca Clips brings us the latest adventures of Captain Rudy; and Red Meat looks back fondly on school gymnastics.

Published in Comics

Every year, Project Censored scours the landscape for the most important stories that the mainstream corporate media somehow missed—and every year, the task seems to get a bit stranger. Or “curiouser and curiouser,” as suggested in the subtitle of this year’s volume of their work, Censored 2020: Through The Looking Glass, which includes their full list of the top 25 censored stories—and much, much more about the never-ending struggle to bring vitally important hidden truths to light.

In the foreword, “Down the Rabbit Hole of ‘Media Literacy’ by Decree,” Sharyl Attkisson, an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, highlights the absurdity of “so many well-organized, well-funded efforts to root out so-called ‘fake news,’” which—as we’ll see below—have significantly impacted the kinds of journalists and outlets who have historically produced the stories that make Project Censored’s list in the first place.

“The self-appointed curators, often wielding proprietary algorithms, summarily dispense with facts and ideas that they determine to be false—or maybe just dangerous to their agendas,” Attkisson notes. “Thanks to them, we will hardly have to do any of our own thinking. They’ll take care of it for us.”

In the beginning, Project Censored’s founder, Carl Jensen, was partly motivated by the way in which the early reporting on the Watergate scandal never crossed over from being a crime story to a political story—until after the 1972 election coverage. It wasn’t censorship in the classic sense, but it was an example of something even more insidious, because no clear-cut act of censorship or all-powerful censor was needed to produce the same result of a public left in the dark. Jensen defined censorship as “the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship—that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in its society.” The most obvious way to start fighting it was to highlight the suppressed information in the form of the stories that didn’t get widely told. Thus, Project Censored and its annual list of censored stories was born.

1. Justice Department’s Secret FISA Rules for Targeting Journalists

The federal government can secretly monitor American journalists under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows invasive spying and operates outside the traditional court system, according two 2015 memos from then-Attorney General Eric Holder.

The memos were obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Freedom of the Press Foundation through an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which was reported on by The Intercept, whose parent company provides funding for both organizations. However, the memos were virtually ignored by the corporate media.

The secret rules “apply to media entities or journalists who are thought to be agents of a foreign government, or, in some cases, are of interest under the broader standard that they possess foreign intelligence information,” The Intercept reported.

Project Censored cited three “concerning” questions the memos raise. First: How many times have FISA court orders been used to target journalists, and are any currently under investigation? Second: Why did the Justice Department keep these rules secret when it updated its “media guidelines” in 2015? And, third: Is the Justice Department using FISA court orders—along with the FBI’s similar rules for targeting journalists with National Security Letters (NSLs)—to “get around the stricter ‘media guidelines’”?

The corporate media virtually ignored these revelations when they occurred. The subsequent media interest in FISA warrants targeting Trump campaign adviser Carter Page “has done nothing at all to raise awareness of the threats posed by FISA warrants that target journalists and news organizations,” Project Censored observed.

Project Censored ended with a quote from Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney with the Knight Institute, summarizing the stakes: “National security surveillance authorities confer extraordinary powers. The government’s failure to share more information about them damages journalists’ ability to protect their sources, and jeopardizes the news gathering process.”

2. Think Tank Partnerships Establish Facebook as a Tool of U.S. Foreign Policy

In the name of fighting “fake news” to protect American democracy from “foreign influences,” Facebook formed a set of partnerships with three expert foreign influencers in 2018, augmenting its bias toward censorship of left/progressive voices.

In May 2018, Facebook announced its partnership with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-sponsored Washington, D.C., think tank to “monitor for misinformation and foreign interference.”

“It’s funded by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force, along with NATO, various foreign powers and major Western corporations, including weapons contractors and oil companies, (including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell),” noted Adam Johnson, writing for the media watch group FAIR.

FAIR went on to note that the major news outlets covering the story said nothing about any of the above conflicts of interest.

In September, Facebook announced it would also partner with two Cold War-era U.S. government-funded propaganda organizations: the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

In October 2018, Jonathan Sigrist, writing for Global Research, described one of the greatest Facebook account and page purges in its troubled history: “559 pages and 251 personal accounts were instantly removed from the platform. … This is but one of similar yet smaller purges that have been unfolding in front of our eyes over the last year, all in the name of fighting ‘fake news’ and so called ‘Russian propaganda.’”

3. Indigenous Groups From the Amazon Propose Creation of Largest Protected Area on Earth

When news of unprecedented wildfires in the Amazon grabbed headlines in late August, most Americans were ill-prepared to understand the story, in part because of systemic exclusion of indigenous voices and viewpoints, as highlighted in Project Censored’s No. 3 story—the proposed creation of an Amazonian protected zone the size of Mexico, presented to the UN Conference on Biodiversity in November 2018.

The proposal, which Jonathan Watts, writing for The Guardian, described as “a 200m-hectare sanctuary for people, wildlife and climate stability that would stretch across borders from the Andes to the Atlantic,” was advanced by an alliance of some 500 indigenous groups from nine countries, known as COICA—the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, who called it “a sacred corridor of life and culture.”

“We have come from the forest and we worry about what is happening,” declared Tuntiak Katan, vice president of COICA, as quoted in The Guardian. “This space is the world’s last great sanctuary for biodiversity. It is there because we are there. Other places have been destroyed.”

The Guardian went on to note: “The organization does not recognize national boundaries, which were put in place by colonial settlers and their descendants without the consent of indigenous people who have lived in the Amazon for millennia. Katan said the group was willing to talk to anyone who was ready to protect not just biodiversity but the territorial rights of forest communities.”

In contrast, The Guardian explained: “Colombia previously outlined a similar triple-A (Andes, Amazon and Atlantic) protection project that it planned to put forward with the support of Ecuador at next month’s climate talks. But the election of new rightwing leaders in Colombia and Brazil has thrown into doubt what would have been a major contribution by South American nations to reduce emissions.”

4. U.S. Oil and Gas Industry Set to Unleash 120 Billion Tons of New Carbon Emissions

Three months after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have just 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change, Oil Change International released a report that went virtually ignored, warning that the United States was headed in the wrong direction.

The report, Drilling Towards Disaster, warned that rather than cutting down carbon emissions, as required to avert catastrophe, the United States under Donald Trump was dramatically increasing fossil fuel production, with the United States on target to account for 60 percent of increased carbon emissions worldwide by 2030—expanding extraction at least four times more than any other country.

References to the report “have been limited to independent media outlets,” Project Censored noted: “Corporate news outlets have not reported on the report’s release or its findings, including its prediction of 120 billion tons of new carbon pollution or its five-point checklist to overhaul fossil fuel production in the US.”

5. Modern Slavery in the United States and Around the World

An estimated 403,000 people in the United States were living in conditions of “modern slavery” in 2016, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, or GSI—about 1 percent of the global total. The GSI defines “modern slavery” broadly to include forced labor and forced marriage.

Because forced marriage accounts for 15 million people, more than a third of the global total, it’s not surprising that females form a majority of the victims (71 percent). The highest levels were found in North Korea, where an estimated 2.6 million people—10 percent of the population—are victims of modern slavery.

The GSI is produced by the Walk Free Foundation, whose founder, Andrew Forrest, called the U.S. figure, “a truly staggering statistic, (which) is only possible through a tolerance of exploitation.”

“Walk Free’s methodology includes extrapolation using national surveys, databases of information of those who were assisted in trafficking cases, and reports from other agencies like the UN’s International Labour Organization” to compile its figures, explained The Guardian.

There are problems with this methodology, according to others working in the field, The Guardian noted. There’s no universal legal definition, and tabulation difficulties abound. But the GSI addresses this as an issue for governments to work on and offers specific proposals.

“The GSI noted that forced labor occurred ‘in many contexts’ in the U.S., including in agriculture, among traveling sales crews, and—as recent legal cases against GEO Group, Inc. have revealed—as the result of compulsory prison labor in privately owned and operated detention facilities contracted by the Department of Homeland Security,” Project Censored noted.

Newly restrictive immigration policies have further increased the vulnerability of undocumented persons and migrants to modern slavery.

6. Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Sex Trafficking Criminalized for Self-Defense

On Jan. 7, outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who had been sentenced to life in prison in 2004, at age 16, for killing a man who bought her for sex and raped her. Brown’s case gained prominence via the support of A-list celebrities, and Haslam cited “the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.” But despite public impressions, Brown’s case was far from unique.

“There are thousands of Cyntoia Browns in prison,” organizer Mariame Kaba, co-founder of Survived and Punished, told Democracy Now! the next day.

“We should really pay attention to the fact that we should be fighting for all of those to be free,” Kaba said. “When you look at women’s prisons, the overwhelming majority, up to 90 percent of the people in there, have had histories of sexual and physical violence prior to ending up in prison.”

Project Censored wrote: “In contrast to the spate of news coverage from establishment outlets, which focused on Brown’s biography and the details of her case, independent news organizations, including The Guardian, Democracy Now!, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, stood out for reporting that cases like Brown’s are all too common.”

Later in January, Kellie Murphy’s Rolling Stone story quoted Alisa Bierria, another Survived and Punished co-founder, and highlighted several other cases prominent in alternative-media coverage. In May, Mother Jones reported on the legislative progress that Survived and Punished and its allies had achieved in advancing state and federal legislation.

“Corporate news organizations provided considerable coverage of Cyntoia Brown’s clemency,” Project Censored noted. “However, many of these reports treated Brown’s case in isolation, emphasizing her biography or the advocacy on her behalf by celebrities such as Rihanna, Drake, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian West.”

It went on to cite examples from the New York Times and NBC News that did take a broader view, but failed to focus on sex trafficking or sexual violence.

7. Flawed Investigations of Sexual Assaults in Children’s Immigrant Shelters

“Over the past six months, ProPublica has gathered hundreds of police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters,” ProPublica reported in November 2018. “(The shelters) have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014, (and the reports reveal that) both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.”

“Again and again, the reports show, the police were quickly—and with little investigation—closing the cases, often within days, or even hours,” ProPublica stated.

In the case of Alex, a 13-year-old from Honduras, used to highlight systemic problems, the police investigation lasted 72 minutes, and resulted in a three-sentence report. There was surveillance video showing two older teenagers grabbing him, throwing him to the floor and dragging him into a bedroom. But ProPublica reported, “An examination of Alex’s case shows that almost every agency charged with helping Alex—with finding out the full extent of what happened in that room—had instead failed him.”

“Because immigrant children in detention are frequently moved, even when an investigator wanted to pursue a case, the child could be moved out of the investigating agency’s jurisdiction in a just few weeks, often without warning,” Project Censored noted. “When children are released, parents or relatives may be reluctant to seek justice, avoiding contact with law enforcement because they are undocumented or living with someone who is.”

8. U.S. Women Face Prison Sentences for Miscarriages

“There has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, candidate Donald Trump said in early 2016, which led to a wave of denials from anti-abortion activists and politicians, who claimed it was not their position. These women were victims, too, they argued—that had always been their position.

But that wasn’t true, as Rewire News reported at the time. Women were already in prison, not for abortions, but for miscarriages alleged to be covert abortions. And that could become much more widespread due to actions taken by Trump Administration, according to a 2019 Ms. Magazine blog post by Naomi Randolph on the 46th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, especially if the decision is overturned.

“Pregnant women could face a higher risk of criminal charges for miscarriages or stillbirths, due to lawmakers in numerous states enacting laws that recognize fetuses as people, separate from the mother,” Project Censored explained, adding:

One example that Randolph provided is in Alabama, where voters recently passed a measure that “endows fetuses with ‘personhood’ rights for the first time, potentially making any action that impacts a fetus a criminal behavior with potential for prosecution.” Collectively, these laws have resulted in hundreds of American women facing prosecution for the outcome of their pregnancies.

In fact, a 2015 joint ProPublica/AL.com investigation, found that “at least 479 new and expecting mothers have been prosecuted across Alabama since 2006,” under an earlier child-endangerment law, passed with methamphetamine-lab explosions in mind, which the “personhood movement” got repurposed to target stillbirths, miscarriages and suspected self-abortions.

9. Developing Countries’ Medical Needs Unfulfilled by Big Pharma

“The world’s biggest pharmaceutical firms have failed to develop two-thirds of the 139 urgently needed treatments in developing countries,” Julia Kollewe reported for The Guardian in November 2018, according to a report by Access to Medicine Foundation, which “found that most firms focus on infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, but had failed to focus on other serious ailments. … In particular, the foundation called for an infants’ vaccine for cholera and a single-dose oral cure for syphilis.”

It’s not all bad news. “The foundation’s report also highlighted 45 best and innovative practices that could ‘help raise the level of standard practice’ and ‘achieve greater access to medicine,’” Project Censored noted. “The report highlights examples such as the development of a child-friendly chewable tablet for roundworm and whipworm, which infect an estimated 795 million people,” The Guardian reported. “Johnson and Johnson has pledged to donate 200 million doses a year until 2020.”

The possibilities underscore why attention is vital. Attention makes a difference, Project Censored pointed out: “In an effort to mobilize investors to pressure pharmaceutical companies to make more medicines available to developing countries, the foundation presented the findings of its reports to 81 global investors at events in London, New York, and Tokyo. As of April 2019, Access to Medicine reported that, since the release of the 2018 Access to Medicine Index in November 2018, 90 major investors had pledged support of its research and signed its investor statement.”

But attention has been sorely lacking in the corporate media. “With the exception of a November 2018 article by Reuters, news of the Access to Medicine Index’s findings appear to have gone unreported in the corporate press,” Project Censored concluded.

10. Pentagon Aims to Surveil Social Media to Predict Domestic Protests

“The United States government is accelerating efforts to monitor social media to preempt major anti-government protests in the U.S.,” Nafeez Ahmed reported for Motherboard in October 2018, drawing on “scientific research, official government documents, and patent filings.” Specifically, “The social media posts of American citizens who don’t like President Donald Trump are the focus of the latest U.S. military-funded research,” which in turn “is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate the U.S. military’s role and influence on domestic intelligence.”

The Pentagon had previously funded Big Data research into predicting mass population behavior, “specifically the outbreak of conflict, terrorism, and civil unrest,” especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, via a program known as “Embers.” But such attention wasn’t solely focused abroad, Ahmed noted, calling attention to a U.S. Army-backed study on civil unrest within the U.S. homeland, titled “Social Network Structure as a Predictor of Social Behavior: The Case of Protest in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.”

Ahmed discussed two specific patents which contribute to “a sophisticated technology suite capable of locating the ‘home’ position of users to within 10 kilometers for millions of Twitter accounts, and predicting thousands of incidents of civil unrest from micro-blogging streams on Tumblr.”

Project Censored made no mention of any coverage of this story by the corporate media.

Published in Features

“Fake news” is not a new thing. In Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion, Project Censored’s vivid cover art recalls H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

The situation today may feel as desolate as the cover art suggests.

Censored 2019 is a book about fighting fake news,” editors Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff observed in the book’s introduction. In the end, they argued that “critical media education—rather than censorship, blacklists, privatized fact-checkers, or legislative bans—is the best weapon for fighting the ongoing fake news invasion.”

Project Censored’s annual list of 25 censored stories, which makes up the book’s lengthy first chapter, is one of the best resources one can have for such education.

Project Censored has long been engaged in much more than just uncovering and publicizing stories kept down and out of the corporate media. Over the years, it added new analytical categories, including sensationalist and titillating Junk Food News stories. But through it all, the list of censored stories remains central to Project Censored’s mission, which, the editors point out, can be read in two different ways: “As a critique of the shortcomings of U.S. corporate news media for their failure to adequately cover these stories, or as a celebration of independent news media, without which we would remain either uninformed or misinformed about these crucial stories and issues.”


1. Global Decline in the Rule of Law as Basic Human Rights Diminish

According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017–2018, released in January 2018, a striking worldwide decline in basic human rights has driven an overall decline in the rule of law since October 2016—the month before Trump’s election.

Fundamental rights—one of eight categories measured—declined in 71 out of 113 nations surveyed. Overall, 34 percent of countries’ scores declined, while just 29 percent improved. The United States ranked 19th, down one from 2016, with declines in checks on government powers and deepening discrimination.

Fundamental rights include the absence of discrimination, the right to life and security, due process, the freedom of expression and religion, the right to privacy, the freedom of association and labor rights.

“All signs point to a crisis not just for human rights, but for the human rights movement,” Yale professor of history and law Samuel Moyn told The Guardian the day the index was released. “Within many nations, these fundamental rights are falling prey to the backlash against a globalising economy in which the rich are winning. But human rights movements have not historically set out to name or shame inequality.”

This reflects the thesis of Moyn’s most recent book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Constraints on government powers, which measures the extent to which those who govern are bound by law, saw the second-greatest declines (64 countries out of 113 dropped). This is where the United States saw the greatest deterioration, the World Justice Project stated in a press release. “While all sub-factors in this dimension declined at least slightly from 2016, the score for lawful transition of power—based on responses to survey questions on confidence in national and local election processes and procedures—declined most markedly,” the press release stated.  

The United States also scored notably poorly on several measurements of discrimination.

The four Nordic countries—Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden—remained in the top four positions. New Zealand, Canada and Australia were the only top 10 countries outside of Europe.

“The WJP’s 2017–2018 Rule of Law Index received scant attention from U.S. corporate media,” Project Censored noted. The only coverage they found was a Newsweek article drawing on The Guardian’s coverage.


2. “Open-Source” Intelligence Secrets Sold to Highest Bidders

In March 2017, WikiLeaks released Vault 7, a trove of 8,761 leaked confidential CIA files about its global hacking programs, which WikiLeaks described as the “largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” It drew significant media attention.

But almost no one noticed what George Eliason of OpEdNews pointed out.

“Sure, the CIA has all these tools available,” Eliason pointed out. “Yes, they are used on the public. The important part is (that) it’s not the CIA that’s using them. That’s the part that needs to frighten you.”

As Eliason went on to explain, the CIA’s mission prevents it from using the tools, especially on Americans.

“All the tools are unclassified, open-source, and can be used by anyone,” Eliason explained. “It makes them not exactly usable for secret-agent work. That’s what makes it impossible for them to use Vault 7 tools directly.”

Drawing heavily on more than a decade of reporting by Tim Shorrock for Mother Jones and The Nation, Eliason’s OpEdNews series reported on the explosive growth of private contractors in the intelligence community, which allows the CIA and other agencies to gain access to intelligence gathered by methods they’re prohibited from using.

In a 2016, report for The Nation, Shorrock estimated that 80 percent of an estimated 58,000 private intelligence contractors worked for the five largest companies. He concluded that “not only has intelligence been privatized to an unimaginable degree, but an unprecedented consolidation of corporate power inside U.S. intelligence has left the country dangerously dependent on a handful of companies for its spying and surveillance needs.”

Eliason reported how private contractors pioneered open-source intelligence by circulating or selling the information they gathered before the agency employing them had reviewed and classified it; therefore, “no one broke any laws.” As a result, according to Eliason’s second article, “People with no security clearances and radical political agendas have state-sized cyber tools at their disposal, (which they can use) for their own political agendas, private business, and personal vendettas.”

Corporate media reporting on Vault 7 sometimes noted but failed to focus on dangerous role of private contractors, Project Censored pointed out—with the notable exception of am op-ed in The Washington Post in which Shorrock reviewed his previous reporting and concluded that over-reliance on private intelligence contractors was “a liability built into our system that intelligence officials have long known about and done nothing to correct.”


3. World’s Richest One Percent Continue to Become Wealthier

In November 2017, Credit Suisse released its 8th Annual Global Wealth Report which The Guardian reported on under the headline, Richest 1% Own Half the World’s Wealth, Study Finds.

The wealth share of the world’s richest people increased “from 42.5 percent at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1 percent in 2017,” The Guardian reported, adding that “the biggest losers … are young people who should not expect to become as rich as their parents.”

“(Despite being more educated than their parents), millennials are doing less well than their parents at the same age, especially in relation to income, home ownership and other dimensions of well-being assessed in this report,” Rohner Credit Suisse Chairman Urs Rohner said. “We expect only a minority of high achievers and those in high-demand sectors such as technology or finance to effectively overcome the ‘millennial disadvantage.’”

“No other part of the wealth pyramid has been transformed as much since 2000 as the millionaire and ultra-high net worth individual (known as UHNWI) segments,” the report said. “The number of millionaires has increased by 170 percent, while the number of UHNWIs (individuals with net worth of $50 million or more) has risen five-fold, making them by far the fastest-growing group of wealth holders.”

There were of 2.3 million new dollar millionaires this year, taking the total to 36 million.

“At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000,” The Guardian reported. “Collectively these people, who account for 70 percent of the world’s working age population, account for just 2.7 percent of global wealth.”

“Tremendous concentration of wealth and the extreme poverty that results from it are problems that affect everyone in the world, but wealth inequalities do not receive nearly as much attention as they should in the establishment press,” Project Censored noted. “The few corporate news reports that have addressed this issue—including an August 2017 Bloomberg article and a July 2016 report for CBS’s MoneyWatch—focused exclusively on wealth inequality within the United States. As Project Censored has previously reported, corporate news consistently covers the world’s billionaires while ignoring millions of humans who live in poverty.”


4. How Big Wireless Convinced Us Cell Phones and Wi-Fi Are Safe

Are cell phones and other wireless devices really as safe we’ve been led to believe? Don’t bet on it, according to decades of buried research reviewed in a March 2018 investigation for The Nation by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie.

“The wireless industry not only made the same moral choices that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries did; it also borrowed from the same public-relations playbook those industries pioneered,” Hertsgaard and Dowie reported. “Like their tobacco and fossil-fuel brethren, wireless executives have chosen not to publicize what their own scientists have said about the risks of their products. … On the contrary, the industry—in America, Europe and Asia—has spent untold millions of dollars in the past 25 years proclaiming that science is on its side, that the critics are quacks, and that consumers have nothing to fear.”

Their report comes at the same time as several new developments are bringing the issue to the fore, including a Kaiser Permanente study (published December 2017 in Scientific Reports) finding much higher risks of miscarriage; a study in the October 2017 American Journal of Epidemiology, finding increased risk for glioma (a type of brain tumor); and a disclosure by the National Frequency Agency of France that nine out of 10 cell phones exceed government radiation safety limits when tested in the way they are actually used—next to the human body.

“The wireless industry has ‘war-gamed’ science by playing offense as well as defense, actively sponsoring studies that result in published findings supportive of the industry, while aiming to discredit competing research that raises questions about the safety of cellular devices and other wireless technologies,” Project Censored summarized. “When studies have linked wireless radiation to cancer or genetic damage, industry spokespeople have pointed out that the findings are disputed by other researchers.”

While some local media have covered the findings of a few selected studies, Project Censored notes, “the norm for corporate media is to report the telecom industry line—that is, that evidence linking Wi-Fi and cell phone radiation to health issues, including cancer and other medical problems, is either inconclusive or disputed. … As Hertsgaard and Dowie’s Nation report suggested, corporate coverage of this sort is partly how the telecom industry remains successful in avoiding the consequences of actions.”


5. The Washington Post Bans Employees from Using Social Media to Criticize Sponsors

On May 1, 2017, the Washington Post introduced a policy prohibiting its employees from criticizing its advertisers and business partners—and encouraging them to snitch on one another.

“A new social-media policy at The Washington Post prohibits conduct on social media that ‘adversely affects The Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners,” Andrew Beaujon reported in The Washingtonian the next month. “In such cases, Post management reserves the right to take disciplinary action ‘up to and including termination of employment.’”

Beaujon also cited “a clause that encourages employees to snitch on one another: ‘If you have any reason to believe that an employee may be in violation of The Post’s Social Media Policy … you should contact The Post’s Human Resources Department.’”

At the time, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which represents the Post’s employees, was protesting the policy and seeking removal of the controversial parts in a new labor agreement. A follow-up report by Whitney Webb for MintPress News highlighted the broader possible censorship effects, since prohibiting social-media criticism could spill over into reporting as well.

“Among The Washington Post’s advertisers are corporate giants like GlaxoSmithKline, Bank of America and Koch Industries,” Webb wrote. “With the new policy, social-media posts criticizing GlaxoSmithKline’s habit of making false and misleading claims about its products, inflating prices and withholding crucial drug safety information from the government will no longer be made by Post employees.”

Beyond that, Webb suggested it could protect the CIA, which has a $600 million contract with Amazon Web Services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased the Post four months after that contract was signed.

“While criticism of the CIA is not technically prohibited by the new policy, former Post reporters have suggested that making such criticisms could endanger one’s career,” Webb noted.

“Corporate news coverage of The Washington Post’s social media policy has been extremely limited,” Project Censored noted.

It’s part of a much broader problem, identified in Jeremy Iggers’ 1998 book, Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and The Public Interest. Iggers argued that journalism ethics focused on individual reporters completely missed the larger issue of corporate conflicts whose systemic effects fundamentally undermine journalism’s role in a democracy.


6. Russiagate: A Two-Headed Monster of Propaganda and Censorship

Is Russiagate a censored story? In my view, not exactly. This entry seems to reflect a well-intentioned effort to critically examine fake-news-related issues within a “censored story” framework. It’s important that these issues be raised—which is one reason why I suggested above that Project Censored add “fake news” as a new analytical category to examine annually along with its censored stories list, “junk food news” and “news abuse.”

What Project Censored calls attention to is important: “Corporate media coverage of Russiagate has created a two-headed monster of propaganda and censorship. By saturating news coverage with a sensationalized narrative, Russiagate has superseded other important, newsworthy stories.”

As a frustrated journalist with omnivorous interests, I heartily concur—but what’s involved is too complex to simply be labelled “propaganda.” On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is a classic, well-defined Project Censored story, which suffers from the attempt to fit both together.

In April 2017, Aaron Maté reported for The Intercept on a quantitative study of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show from Feb. 20 to March 31, 2017 which found that “Russia-focused segments accounted for 53 percent of these broadcasts.” Maté wrote: “Maddow’s Russia coverage has dwarfed the time devoted to other top issues, including Trump’s escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants (1.3 percent of coverage); Obamacare repeal (3.8 percent); the legal battle over Trump’s Muslim ban (5.6 percent), a surge of anti-GOP activism and town halls since Trump took office (5.8 percent), and Trump administration scandals and stumbles (11 percent).”

Well and good. But is this propaganda?

At Truthdig, Norman Solomon wrote: “As the cable news network most trusted by Democrats as a liberal beacon, MSNBC plays a special role in fueling rage among progressive-minded viewers toward Russia’s ‘attack on our democracy’ that is somehow deemed more sinister and newsworthy than corporate dominance of American politics (including Democrats), racist voter suppression, gerrymandering and many other U.S. electoral defects all put together.”

Also true. But it is not so much propaganda as Project Censored’s broader category of “news abuse,” which includes propaganda and spin among other forms of “distraction to direct our attention away from what we really need to know.” To fully grasp what’s involved requires a more complex analysis. On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is far more clear-cut and straightforward.

In a report for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Robin Andersen examined Russiagate-inspired censorship moves by Twitter, Google and others. A key initial target of this censorship was RT.

"RT’s reporting bears striking similarities to alternative and independent media content, and that is why letting the charges against RT stand unexamined is so dangerous," Andersen noted.

In fact, the government’s intelligence report on RT included its reporting on the dangers of fracking as part of its suspect activity. Beyond that, the spill-over suppression was dramatic: “Yet in the battle against fake news, much of the best, most accurate independent reporting is disappearing from Google searches,” Anderson said. “The World Socialist Web Site (8/2/17) reported that Google’s new search protocol is restricting access to leading independent, left-wing, progressive, anti-war and democratic rights websites. The estimated declines in traffic generated by Google searches for news sites are striking.”

There were declines for AlterNet.org (63 percent), DemocracyNow.org (36 percent), CounterPunch.org (21 percent), ConsortiumNews.com (47 percent), MediaMatters.org (42 percent), and TheIntercept.com (19 percent), among others.

“Many people suffer when lies are reported as facts, but it seems that corporate media are the only ones that profit when they reinforce blind hostility—against not only Russia, but also legitimate domestic dissent,” Project Censored noted.


7. Regenerative Agriculture as “Next Stage” of Civilization

The world’s agricultural and degraded soils have the capacity to recover 50 to 66 percent of the historic carbon release into the atmosphere, according to a 2004 paper in Science—actually reversing the processes driving global warming.

A set of practices known as “regenerative agriculture” could play a major role in accomplishing that, while substantially increasing crop yields as well, according to information compiled and published by Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, in May 2017.

“For thousands of years, we grew food by depleting soil carbon, and in the last hundred or so, the carbon in fossil fuel as well,” food and farming writer Michael Pollan wrote. “But now we know how to grow even more food while at the same time returning carbon and fertility and water to the soil

Cummins, who’s also a founding member of Regeneration International, wrote that regenerative agriculture offers a “world-changing paradigm” that can help solve many of today’s environmental and public-health problems. As The Guardian explained: “Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, re-mineralizes soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertilizer runoff.”

“We can’t really solve the climate crisis (and the related soil, environmental, and public health crisis) without simultaneously solving the food and farming crisis,” Cummings wrote. “We need to stop putting greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere (by moving to 100 percent renewable energy), but we also need to move away from chemical-intensive, energy-intensive food, factory farming and land use, as soon as possible.”

In addition to global warming, there are profound economic and social justice concerns involved.

“Out-of-touch and out-of-control governments of the world now take our tax money and spend $500 billion ... a year mainly subsidizing 50 million industrial farmers to do the wrong thing,” Cummins wrote. “Meanwhile, 700 million small family farms and herders, comprising the 3 billion people who produce 70 percent of the world’s food on just 25 percent of the world’s acreage, struggle to make ends meet…. The basic menu for a Regeneration Revolution is to unite the world’s 3 billion rural farmers, ranchers and herders with several billion health, environmental and justice-minded consumers to overturn ‘business as usual’ and embark on a global campaign of cooperation, solidarity and regeneration.”

If you’ve never heard of it before, don’t be surprised. “Regenerative agriculture has received limited attention in the establishment press, highlighted by only two recent, substantive reports in the New York Times Magazine and Salon,” Project Censored wrote.


8. Congress Passes Intrusive Data-Sharing Law Under Cover of Spending Bill

On March 21, House Republicans released a 2,232-page omnibus spending bill. It passed both houses and was signed into law in two days. Attached to the spending provisions that made it urgent “must-pass” legislation was the completely unrelated Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act of 2018, also known as the CLOUD Act.

“The CLOUD Act enables the U.S. government to acquire data across international borders regardless of other nations’ data-privacy laws and without the need for warrants,” Project Censored summarized.

It also significantly weakens protections against foreign-government actions.

“It was never reviewed or marked up by any committee in either the House or the Senate,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s David Ruiz wrote. “It never received a hearing. … It was robbed of a stand-alone floor vote because Congressional leadership decided, behind closed doors, to attach this unvetted, unrelated data bill to the $1.3 trillion government spending bill.” Congressional leadership failed to listen to citizen concerns, Ruiz wrote, with devastating consequences:

“Because of this failure, U.S. and foreign police will have new mechanisms to seize data across the globe. Because of this failure, your private emails, your online chats, your Facebook, Google, Flickr photos, your Snapchat videos, your private lives online, your moments shared digitally between only those you trust, will be open to foreign law enforcement without a warrant and with few restrictions on using and sharing your information, privacy and human rights,” concluded Robyn Greene, who reported for Just Security.

“The little corporate news coverage that the CLOUD Act received tended to put a positive spin on it,” Project Censored noted. “(A glowing Washington Post op-ed) made no mention of potential risks to the privacy of citizens’ personal data, (and a CNET report that) highlighted the liberties that the CLOUD Act would provide corporations by simplifying legal issues concerning overseas servers.”

Because of this failure, U.S. laws will be bypassed on U.S. soil. Greene noted that the CLOUD Act negates protections of two interrelated existing laws. It creates an exception to the Stored Communications Act that allows certified foreign governments to request personal data directly from U.S. companies.

“This exception enables those countries to bypass the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty process, which protects human rights by requiring foreign governments to work with the Department of Justice to obtain warrants from U.S. judges before they can access that data for their criminal investigations,” Greene explained. “The version of the bill that was included in the omnibus does include some improvements over the earlier version to help to mitigate the risks of bypassing the MLAT process … two changes (that) are important improvements. … Several other concerns have been left entirely unaddressed.”

“While the bill sponsors did try to address some of the concerns that have been raised, the improvements are not enough to shift the balance so that the CLOUD Act will be a boon, rather than a threat, to privacy and human rights,” Greene concluded.


9. Indigenous Communities Around World Helping to Win Legal Rights of Nature

In March 2017, the government of New Zealand ended a 140-year dispute with an indigenous Maori tribe by enacting a law that officially recognized the Whanganui River, which the tribe considers their ancestor, as a living entity with rights.

The Guardian reported it as “a world-first,” although the surrounding Te Urewera National Park had been similarly recognized in a 2014 law, and the U.S. Supreme Court came within one vote of potentially recognizing such a right in the 1972 case Sierra Club v. Morton, expressed in a dissent by Justice William O. Douglas. In addition, the broader idea of “rights of nature” has been adopted in Ecuador, Bolivia and by some American communities, noted Mihnea Tanasescu, writing for The Conversation.

The tribe’s perspective was explained to The Guardian by its lead negotiator, Gerrard Albert.

“We consider the river an ancestor and always have,” Albert said. “We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”

But that could be just the beginning. “It is a critical precedent for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in legal systems around the world,” Kayla DeVault reported for YES! Magazine. Others are advancing this perspective, DeVault wrote: “In response to the Standing Rock Sioux battle against the Dakota Access pipeline, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin amended its constitution to include the Rights of Nature. This is the first time a North American tribe has used a Western legal framework to adopt such laws. Some American municipalities have protected their watersheds against fracking by invoking Rights of Nature.”

“A few corporate media outlets have covered the New Zealand case and subsequent decisions in India,” Project Censored noted. “However, these reports have not provided the depth of coverage found in the independent press or addressed how legal decisions in other countries might provide models for the United States.”


10. FBI Racially Profiling “Black Identity Extremists”

While white supremacists were preparing for the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer in August 2017, the FBI’s counterterrorism division produced an intelligence assessment warning of a very different—though actually non-existent threat: “Black Identity Extremists.” The report appeared to be the first time the term had been used to identify a movement, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which broke the story.

“But former government officials and legal experts said no such movement exists, and some expressed concern that the term is part of a politically motivated effort to find an equivalent threat to white supremacists,” Foreign Policy reported.

“The use of terms like ‘black identity extremists’ is part of a long-standing FBI attempt to define a movement where none exists,” said former FBI agent Mike German, who now works for the Brennan Center for Justice. “Basically, it’s black people who scare them.”

“It’s classic Hoover-style labeling with little bit of maliciousness and euphemism wrapped up together,” said William Maxwell, a Washington University professor working on a book about FBI monitoring of black writers. “The language … strikes me as weird and really a continuation of the worst of Hoover’s past.”

“There is a long tradition of the FBI targeting black activists and this is not surprising,” Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson told Foreign Policy.

A former homeland security official told them that carelessly connecting unrelated groups will make it harder for law enforcement to identify real threats. It’s so convoluted that it’s compromising officer safety, the former official said.

“The corporate media (has) covered the FBI report on ‘black identity extremists’ in narrow or misleading ways,” Project Censored noted, citing examples from The New York Times, Fox News and NBC News. “Coverage like this both draws focus away from the active white supremacist movement and feeds the hate and fear on which such a movement thrive.”

Published in National/International

Beyond the devastation and personal tragedy of the fires that have ravaged California in recent months, another disaster looms: an alarming uptick in unhealthy air—and the sudden release of the carbon dioxide that drives climate change.

As millions of acres burn in a cycle of longer and more-intense fire seasons, the extensive efforts of industry and regulators to protect the environment can be partly undone in one firestorm. In particular, as raging blazes pump more carbon into the atmosphere, state officials are grappling with the potential effect on California’s ability to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state’s environmental regulations are known to be stringent, but they have limits: They apply only to human-caused emissions. Pollution generated by wildfires is all outside the grasp of state law.

“The kinds of fires we’re seeing now generate millions of tons of GHG emissions. This is significant,” said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the state Air Resources Board, a regulatory body.

In less than one week, for example, October’s wine-country fires discharged harmful emissions equal to that of every car, truck and big rig on the state’s roads in a year. The calculations from the subsequent fires in Southern California are not yet available, but given the duration and scope of the multiple blazes, they could well exceed that level.

The greenhouse gases released when forests burn not only do immediate harm, discharging carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases; they also continue to inflict damage long after the fires are put out. In a state where emissions from nearly every industry are tightly regulated, if wildfires were treated like other carbon emitters, Mother Nature would be castigated, fined and shut down.

The air board estimates that between 2001 and 2010, wildfires generated approximately 120 million tons of carbon. But Clegern said a direct comparison with regulated emissions is difficult, in part because of limited monitoring data.

“Nature doesn’t follow the rules very well,” said Jim Branham, executive officer at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that has created a plan to better harness California’s forests in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

As is so often the case in environmental catastrophes, one thing leads to another, creating what Branham calls the double whammy: Burning trees not only release powerful pollutants known as black carbon; once a forest is gone, its prodigious ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it is lost, too.

Scientists estimate that in severely burned areas, only a fraction of a scorched tree’s emissions are released during the fire, perhaps as little as 15 percent. The bulk of greenhouse gases are released over months and years as the plant dies and decomposes.

And if a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon, according to the conservancy.

Severe fires have the capacity to inflict profound damage in a short span. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the 2013 Rim Fire in central California spewed out the equivalent of the carbon-dioxide emissions from 3 million cars. That is a setback to the state’s effort to get cars off the road, another critical tool for reducing greenhouse gases.

The role of wildfires as a major source of pollution was identified a decade ago, when a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that “a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.”

It’s a measure of the dramatic ramping up of fires in the West that today, a single fire can meet that threshold.

The entire equation has been made worse by the state’s epidemic of tree death, caused by drought, disease and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service earlier this month updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

“Dead trees don’t sequester carbon,” Branham said.

Forests as carbon-chewers are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond—a goal that could be undermined by nature’s caprice. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes.

Air quality, too, is subject to state, local and federal regulations. But those standards go out the window in large fires, when soot and ash blanketing entire regions can be seen from space.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which sets air pollution standards nationally, has an “exceptional events” rule that exempts states from fines under certain extraordinary conditions.

California has invoked the rule during wildfires at least once before, in 2008, for fires in the Sacramento area. The request was accepted, according to the air board.

More recently, Sean Raffuse, an analyst at the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, came up with the “back of the envelope” calculations for October’s Sonoma County fires.

Raffuse said he used federal emissions inventories from fires and calculated that five days of ashy spew from the northern California blazes equated to the annual air pollution from every vehicle in California.

Those kinds of computations are seldom replicated, largely for lack of the necessary instruments present at fire sites. But things are changing: Researchers have been attempting to better understand the full range of environmental damage wrought by wildfires. One tool is drones that can be flown through smoke plumes to collect samples for analysis.

“We don’t have the means to measure emissions from a wildfire like we do from a tailpipe,” Branham said. “We are lagging well behind in understanding and having hard data of the effects of these fires. And most of the data are chasing reality.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

On this week's midsummer classic weekly Independent comics page: The K Chronicles pays tribute to Jackie Robinson; This Modern World hears from the invisible hand of the free market; Jen Sorenson goes camping; Red Meat plays a new video game; and Apoca Clips covers the meeting between Trumpy and Putin.

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Impose a Price on Carbon

This could occur in several ways. The revenue-neutral carbon fee has a great backbone of advocacy support. It would charge fossil fuel producers at the first point of sale, and the revenue would be distributed among the public. Prices of goods and services dependent on fossil fuels would go up, while people who buy less of those products and therefore contribute less to climate change would come out ahead. The revenue-neutral system’s one flaw, according to some, is that it doesn’t provide government with a new source of revenue for funding social systems that promote renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and other climate-focused measures. A cap-and-trade system, on the other hand, would fund public agencies while creating incentive for industries to pollute less. Republicans, however, tend to oppose cap and trade because it acts much like a tax on businesses that they argue will depress the economy.

Carbon Farming

Agriculture has been one of the greatest overall emitters of atmospheric carbon. Now, agriculture must play a role in reversing the damage done to the planet—and it’s theoretically a simple task: When plants grow, they draw carbon into their own mass and into the soil. All that a farmer needs to do is keep that carbon there. By planting long-standing trees and perennial row crops, farmers and other land managers have the power to sequester a great deal of the carbon dioxide that has been emitted into the atmosphere. In the process of slowing climate change, soils will become richer and healthier, with more natural productivity and greater water retention properties than depleted soils.

Redesign Our Cities

Urban areas are responsible for more than half of America’s carbon footprint, by some estimates. The role of cities in driving climate change can be largely offset by turning linear material and waste streams—like water inputs—into circular loops that recycle precious resources. Jonathan F.P. Rose, author of The Well-Tempered City, says 98 percent of material resources that enter a city leave again, mostly as waste, within six months. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings would be one very significant way to reduce a city’s carbon footprint. Upgrading transit systems and making streets more compatible with zero-emission transportation, like walking and riding a bicycle, would also cut emissions.

Shift to Renewable Energy

This is a big one that has to be tackled, and it will mean fighting the powerful petroleum lobby. Generating electricity currently produces 30 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions, the single largest source by sector in the country, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. However, Donald Trump has promised to revive the American coal industry and tap into domestic reserves of natural gas and oil—quite the opposite of developing renewable energy technology.

Strive for Low- to Zero-Emission Transportation

Driving your car—one of the most symbolic expressions of American freedom—contributes significantly to climate change. Transport accounts for 26 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, says the Environmental Protection Agency. More than half of this total comes from private vehicles. Airplanes, ships and trains produce most of the rest. Against the will of the petroleum industry, national leaders must continue pressing for more efficient vehicles, as well as electric ones powered by clean electricity.

Make Homes More Efficient

A single pilot light produces about a half-ton of carbon dioxide per year, according to Peter Kalmus, author of the forthcoming book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. That is just one example of how households contribute to climate change. According to the EPA, commercial and residential spaces produce 12 percent of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions. In his book, Kalmus discusses how and why he took simple but meaningful action that reduced his carbon dioxide emissions from about 20 tons per year to just two.

See also:

Crisis Coming: Battling Climate Change in the Trump Era Won't be Easy—but It's Vital

California's Disappearing Dream: How Climate Change and a Booming Population Continue to Shape Our Environmental Future

Published in Environment

On this week's tasty Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson ponders the future of carbon-emissions technology; The K Chronicles deals with a bit of road rage; The City looks at deadly mayhem; and Red Meat enjoys a snack on the beach.

Published in Comics

On this week's Independent comics page, Karen gets some not-so-fatherly advice in Red Meat; O.J. Simpson cries foul in Roland and Cid; Charles Ramsey gets honored by The City; and Jen Sorenson marks a milestone.

Published in Comics

Most weekdays, a long line of rail cars delivers thick slabs of steel to a factory in Fontana, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, and 60 miles northwest of Palm Springs. Deep in the bowels of California Steel Industries, the slabs are toasted until they glow white-hot; they’re then rolled into thin sheets used to make shipping containers, metal roofing and car wheels.

The plant churns out more than 2 million tons of flat rolled steel each year, using enormous amounts of natural gas and electricity, and releasing more than 190,000 metric tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide annually. Now, California Steel and many other businesses have to pay for their carbon emissions under California's new cap-and-trade law, the first of its kind in the nation.

Last November, the company participated in the state's first auction of carbon allowances, purchasing an undisclosed number, each worth one metric ton of carbon dioxide and selling for $10.09. The online auction went fairly smoothly, says Brett Guge, executive vice president of finance and administration at the company. But for Guge, the long-term challenge is finding ways to meet California's ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets (down to 1990 levels by 2020) while remaining profitable.

The Golden State forged ahead with the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program despite the U.S. Senate's 2010 failure to pass a national program. Given the state's history of implementing environmental regulations that later become national policy, a successful cap-and-trade system could serve as a federal model. If cap-and-trade in California "fails, or is perceived to have failed, then that could be the nail in the coffin for cap-and-trade consideration as a policy instrument in Washington," says Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor who studies climate policy.

While its overall impact on U.S. emissions won't be major, the California experiment makes several improvements to existing cap-and-trade strategies. It covers more sources of pollution than the 5-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeastern U.S., which applies only to power plants. The European Union started the world's largest carbon cap-and-trade program in 2005, but it had a significant flaw: The initial stage of the program gave away too many free credits, resulting in some power companies raking in windfall profits by raising electricity prices, even though they didn't have to pay for their allowances. It also contributed to low prices for carbon allowances, which provides scant incentive to cut emissions.

Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, the agency steering the state program, is confident that California's effort will be different. The program covers 360 businesses, which represent about 600 facilities that each release more than 25,000 metric tons yearly—enough to put a big dent in California's total carbon output. The EU's difficulty, Nichols notes, was that authorities didn't have an accurate measure of the total quantity of emissions initially. California, though, has had a greenhouse-gas reporting requirement in place since 2008.

"We knew (what polluters) were actually putting into the atmosphere," says Nichols. "That gave us the assurance that if we started a (cap-and-trade) program … we would be able to implement it in a way that would not cause the kinds of problems that occurred in Europe."

Fraud could be another obstacle, but experts agree the state is equipped to keep that to a minimum. The Air Resources Board uses third-party verifiers to check reported emissions, and has a system to track allowances and prove their authenticity. Companies that fail to supply enough credits to cover their emissions are fined by having to purchase four times the number of outstanding allowances. While not flawless, the program is unlikely to suffer from market manipulation and fraud, according to an analysis by the University of California at Los Angeles.

But even if the cap-and-trade system works as intended, its economic impacts are a big unknown. Because of its many regulations, high electricity rates and taxes, California is already a costly place to do business.

Guge is worried there won't be a feasible way to reduce the carbon dioxide output of his company's gas-powered furnaces, which account for 75 percent of the plant's total releases. Without reductions, his company will have to pay for more allowances as the cap tightens, but it's reluctant to pass those increased costs on to customers, because that might put it at a competitive disadvantage.

Proponents of cap-and-trade hope the system will drive innovations, with new companies popping up to provide emissions-curbing breakthroughs. In late January, the Sacramento-based firm Clean Tech Advocates launched to do just that. It works to help clean tech developers get state funding, generated from the carbon-credit auctions, for their projects, and its consultants help companies reduce emissions. Founder Patrick Leathers says that, over time, the auctions will bring in "billions of dollars," which will boost the state's clean tech industry and result in carbon-cutting solutions for companies dealing with cap-and-trade.

Environmentalists—and businesses—are hoping he's right.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

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