2012 - %3, May

Targeting America's "Stand Your Ground" Laws

| Fri May 25, 2012 6:45 AM EDT

Nearly three months after the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin put the spotlight on "stand your ground," a new national organization is pressing thousands of lawmakers across the country to "reform or repeal" laws that sanction the controversial self-defense doctrine.

Second Chance on Shoot First, a nonprofit started in April by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and a collection of progressive and civil-rights organizations, is targeting 26 states that legalized "stand your ground"—or "shoot first," as the group calls it. "Prior to 'Shoot First,' people had a traditional duty to retreat from a situation outside their home when they could safely do so," the campaign's website states. "Now, afforded immunity and a presumption of lawfulness by the law, armed individuals can seek out opportunities to use deadly force outside their homes. And the hands of law enforcement and prosecutors are tied."

Mother Jones has reported about how the National Rifle Association and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council lobbied nationwide for the laws, and how the laws have hampered law enforcement in numerous cases—including the investigation into Martin's fatal shooting.

This week, Ginny Simmons, the director of Second Chance, sent letters to more than 4,000 legislators in states with the lax defense standards, urging them to modify or discard the legal guidelines. "[E]xperience has now shown that these laws encourage vigilantism, sow confusion among police, and stymie prosecutors," she wrote in the letter. "People carrying guns now feel emboldened to resolve conflicts with firearms even if they could safely walk away, and police and prosecutors are uncertain about which shootings may be instances of legitimate self-defense and which are murders."

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Frack-Friendly New Report Debunked

| Fri May 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Earlier this month, the State University of New York at Buffalo released a report concluding that fracking is getting safer, as both industry and regulators are doing a better job. The study got plenty of coverage—the Associated Press, Forbes, WGRZ, Buffalo News—but in the week since it was released, it's been attacked for a number of flaws.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process by which a blast of chemicals, water, and sand are used to tap into natural gas reserves. It's also highly controversial, as many have raised concerns about the environmental and health impacts for people living near drilling sites. So it's not surprising that this report, the first from Buffalo's new Shale Resources and Society Institute, drew a lot of attention. 

But on Wednesday the university was forced to remove the "peer-reviewed" description it gave to the report, since it was not. And a reviewer from the Environmental Defense Fund notes that the paper draws some questionable conclusions that he did not actually endorse. On Thursday, the watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) released a scathing review of the report, concluding that the data actually shows that the number of environmental problems related to fracking increased by 189 percent from 2008 to 2011.

PAI also found that two of the report authors had previously written a report paid for by the natural gas industry, and a third works for an environmental consulting firm involved in the natural gas industry. They also revealed that large portions of the paper were lifted, word-for-word, from a pro-fracking paper that three of the authors had written for the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute.

The University at Buffalo's Shale Resources and Society Institute is also getting more scrutiny for its own relationship to the energy industry. As PAI points out, a University at Buffalo spokesman told WGRZ News that the Shale Institute "does not have any external funding." But the institute's website notes that it is currently seeking future funding from outside grants, contracts, and memberships.

"Taken together," concludes PAI, "the serious flaws in the report, industry-friendly spin, strong industry ties, and fundraising plans raise serious questions about the Shale Resources and Society Institute's independence and the University at Buffalo’s decision to lend its independent, academic authority to the Institute's work."

This Week in Dark Money

| Fri May 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

A quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money...

Citizens United fever: The debate over the controversial Supreme Court ruling continues. Curious how it could be undone? Check out our DIY guide to ditching the ruling. For more details, iWatch News reports on the argument over whether a constitutional amendment is the best way to overturn it. MoJo's Andy Kroll explores whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who just asked Supreme Court to reconsider its decision, is reclaiming his status as a campaign-finance reformer. Meanwhile, dark-money fans are lining up to tell the court not to touch Citizens United

Going soft on Obama (sort of): The New York Times' Jeremy Peters deconstructs the latest ad from Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, in which a mom complains that President Obama's policies have forced her grown children to move back home. The ad's partly the work of Larry McCarthy, the producer of the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad:

McCarthy's new ad, though, strikes a far softer tone. It repeatedly uses the word "change" and breaks from the attack-ad norm by employing professional actors.


Oppo-research group targets Dems:
Andy Kroll reports on Media Tracker, a "nonpartisan" opposition-research group founded by  to dig up dirt on Democrats that can be used in attack ads. "I'm talking about creating long-lasting impact for the conservative movement," says its founder, a former Republican National Committee staffer. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has a sophisticated ad shop ready to fight back against the likes of Media Trackers, Slate's Sasha Issenberg reports.

Where are the liberal megadonors? Also at Slate, Dave Weigel takes a look at why the super-PAC-fueled ideological purging of unworthy GOP candidates isn't happening on the left. As Michael Vachon, spokesman for conservatives' favorite boogeyman George Soros, explains, "The reason there's not a Club for Growth-like organization on the left is that there is a greater diversity of views in the Democratic Party than there is in the Republican Party. There's less of a hierarchically enforced ideological structure." 

Super-PACs keep the money flowing to state races: The Sunlight Foundation's Anupama Narayanswamy reports that super-PACs spent nearly $1 million ahead of Tuesday's primaries in Arkansas and Kentucky. A 21-year-old millionaire's pro-Ron Paul super-PAC provided the majority of the $766,000 in outside spending that propelled Republican congressional candidate Thomas Massie to victory in the Bluegrass State. (MoJo's Tim Murphy has more his group here. Watch a campaign ad below.) Meanwhile, real-estate interests have spent a "mind boggling" $700,000 attempting to oust a 14-year incumbent in a Republican House primary in California.

A Wall Street slump for Romney: Barack Obama's difficult relationship with Wall Street donors is well known. Now Mitt Romney is having troubles too, reports the Center for Responsive Politics. Since April, the securities and investment industry has been donating significantly less to his campaign as well as the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future. But Romney is still outraising Obama, who took in just $166,000 from the financial industry last month (and less from Silicon Valley, too).

On Aid, Obama Sells Out Poor Countries to Big Ag

| Fri May 25, 2012 5:29 AM EDT
Table talk: Obama and other G-8 leaders dine at last week's Camp David summit.

"More than one in four Africans—close to 218 million people—is undernourished," the UN Development Program declared in a recent report. With food prices gyrating upward in recent years, the situation has reached a crisis. What's the answer?

According to President Obama and his fellow heads of state in the G-8 (United States, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, and Russia), the solution lies in the private sector. At last weekend's G-8 summit at Camp David, the group launched "The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition," described as a "commitment by G-8 nations, African countries and private sector partners to lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years through inclusive and sustained agricultural growth."

The "private-sector partners" in the alliance have pledged $3 billion in new investments in African ag over the next decade. And what are the companies that President Obama and his G-8 peers have tapped to lift Africa out of hunger? Their number (list here) turns out to include global agribiz giants Cargill, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Yara, and junk-food behemoths Unilever, Kraft, Hershey's, and Mars.

Obama Taps Nuclear "Agnostic" for Top Regulatory Post

| Thu May 24, 2012 4:13 PM EDT

Politico reports that President Obama will nominate Allison Macfarlane to serve as the new chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The current chairman, Greg Jaczko, resigned on Monday under pressure from panel members more sympathetic to the nuclear industry.

Mcfarlane is an associate professor of Environmental Policy and Social Sciences at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She has a PhD in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and wrote a book about the challenges of nuclear waste disposal, Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste. She is currently a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of nuclear that Energy Secretary Steven Chu created in 2010.

Given the pressure put on Jaczko, one has to wonder if Macfarlane will make it through Senate confirmation. She's been highly critical of using Yucca Mountain to dispose of nuclear waste, a favorite issue for the industry and supporters in Congress. And she says she's an "agnostic" on nuclear energy, as she described on the Atomic Show podcast in 2007:

In terms of nuclear energy, I would describe myself as an agnostic. I'm neither pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. I think nuclear has been doing a good job in the United states and some other industrial countries at providing a good, reliable energy, and they've been improving on that. At the same time, I think I think in terms of an expansion in nuclear power over the next 50 years or something, nuclear has lot of liabilities and I don't know if it can get over them.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader (and vocal Yucca critic) Harry Reid indicated that he would seek to move her confirmation forward alongside the reconfirmation of current commissioner Kristine Svinicki. Reid has expressed "grave concerns" about reappointing Svinicki, but seemed to indicate that perhaps there could be agreement on moving the two forward together. "The nuclear industry has a perfect opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to safety by supporting Dr. Macfarlane’s nomination," said Reid.

Feminists Defend Conservative Writer against Sexist Hustler "Parody"

| Thu May 24, 2012 4:09 PM EDT
Hustler founder Larry Flynt at the LA Times festival of books in 2011.

Conservative writer S.E. Cupp was recently the target of a sexist "parody" in Hustler magazine that I won't describe here because it's a family blog. Feminists, in response, have denounced Hustler for essentially telling Cupp that her proper role is as the object of sexual exploitation rather than a source of political commentary. Notably, Sandra Fluke, who was called a "slut" by Rush Limbaugh, tweeted that Hustler was trying to "limit [women] 2 being sexual figures & not more."

Zerlina Maxwell at Feministing writes:

While Hustler claims the picture is intended to be funny "satire," it simply is not funny. It's out of line, it's sexist, and it's an unacceptable form of misogyny. Women are under attack from all sides and no matter what political party you are in, I'm going to defend you from sexist attacks. I will not stand by in silence when a woman, any woman, is attacked in this way and belittled as nothing more than a sexual object. It's about disagreement over ideas; smearing and demeaning women should not part of the equation.

There isn't actually much difference between what Limbaugh was doing to Fluke and what Hustler did to Cupp. In both cases, the objective was to silence a women with contrary political views by insisting that they return to their proper place as objects of sexual desire for men. Conservatives objected to Limbaugh's use of coarse language, but many agreed with his underlying argument in referring to Fluke as a "slut" and a "prostitute."

That's not the only difference: As Digby points out, the forceful condemnations of Hustler from feminist circles stand in contrast to the responses from the right to the Limbaugh/Fluke incident, where mild denounciations were paired with adamant insistence that, whatever Limbaugh said about Fluke, conservative women have it much worse. Conservative writer Michelle Malkin, herself a frequent target of sexist and racist vitriol on Twitter from critics (which is sadly often a byproduct of being a woman who writes stuff on the Internet) pointed out that there were other names Limbaugh could have called Fluke:

I'll tell you why Rush was wrong. Young Sandra Fluke of Georgetown Law is not a "slut." She’s a moocher and a tool of the Nanny State. She’s a poster girl for the rabid Planned Parenthood lobby and its eugenics-inspired foremothers.

The reason for the discrepancy here is rather simple: Whereas liberals view sexism as a societal problem that shapes how we live our lives, many conservatives view it as an issue of liberals using sexist rhetoric against conservative women. That's why Malkin, a disciple of the "I know you are but what am I" school of political rhetoric, came up with the "war on conservative women" meme in response to Democratic rhetoric about Republicans "waging a war on women" by opposing access to contraception and holding up legislation like the Violence Against Women Act. This reflects a disciplined commitment to the Bender theory of discrimination: "This is the worst kind of discrimination: The kind against ME!"

Where conservatives look at the Hustler "parody" as indicative of liberal contempt for conservative women, feminists see a larger problem about how women are treated that affects everything from health insurance to how much you take home on your paycheck. To have condemned Limbaugh for his sexism in the same unconditional manner would have been a distraction, because the real problem isn't sexism, it's liberals. For feminists, sexism is the problem, period.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

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Are Flame Retardants Especially Toxic to Minority Kids?

| Thu May 24, 2012 3:34 PM EDT
Kids' pajamas are one of the many household items that are often treated with flame retardants.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune published an eye-opening investigation of how the chemical industry, through a far-reaching disinformation campaign, has spent years undermining efforts to ban flame retardants. These chemicals have long been added to household items like furniture, clothes, toys, blankets, and TVs, but many have been linked to cancer, neurological and developmental problems, and other serious health risks.

The Tribune series sparked headlines across the country, as well as loud calls for greater scrutiny and regulation of the potentially hazardous chemicals. Now a study posted yesterday by Environmental Health Perspectives, a leading peer-reviewed journal, provides an effective reminder of just how widespread and tenacious the problem is. The researchers examined exposure to flame retardants commonly found in furniture and reported measurable levels in the blood of all 77 toddlers, in all samples of dust collected during home visits to their households, and on 98 percent of hand swipes taken from the children, all of whom were from North Carolina.

New Climate Threat to Critically Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles

| Thu May 24, 2012 3:12 PM EDT

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling: Florida Fish and Wildlife via FlickrLeatherback sea turtle hatchling: Florida Fish and Wildlife via FlickrA new paper in PLoS ONE reports that critically endangered leatherback sea turtles nesting in Costa Rica—a stronghold of the surviving population—are severely affected by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Niño cycles.

Unfortunately, a warmer and drier climate is also exactly what's forecast for Costa Rica in a warming world in the coming century, according to IPCC projections... a whopping 3°C (5.4°F) warmer and 25 percent drier on the Pacific coast.

As the authors note, leatherback turtles are already critically in danger of extinction from egg poaching and  bycatch in fisheries. Now climate change threatens them further. From the paper:

Egg-burying reptiles need relatively stable temperature and humidity in the substrate surrounding their eggs for successful development and hatchling emergence. Here we show that egg and hatchling mortality of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in northwest Costa Rica were affected by climatic variability (precipitation and air temperature) driven by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Drier and warmer conditions associated with El Niño increased egg and hatchling mortality... Using projections from an ensemble of global climate models contributed to the IPCC report, we project that egg and hatchling survival will rapidly decline in the region over the next 100 years by ~50–60%, due to warming and drying in northwestern Costa Rica, threatening the survival of leatherback turtles. Warming and drying trends may also threaten the survival of sea turtles in other areas affected by similar climate changes.

 

Hatching success and emergence rate projections of leatherback nests in 100 years of climate change: Pilar Santidrián Tomillo, set al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602Hatching success and emergence rate projections of leatherback nests in 100 years of climate change: Pilar Santidrián Tomillo, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602

In the graphs above you can see the authors' projections of both hatching success (the percentage of eggs within a clutch that develop completely) and emergence rate (the percentage of hatchlings that successfully emerge from the nest within two nights of the initial emergence event). From the paper:

Our model projected that both hatching success and emergence rate would significantly decrease between years 2001 and 2100 due to a warming and drying of the area encompassing northwest Costa Rica. Of the 17 IPCC models used here, 13 of them projected a decrease in precipitation while all models projected an increase in air temperature. Our projections indicated that hatching success would decrease from a 10-year moving average ~0.42 to ~0.18 from the beginning to the end of the 21st century, and emergence rate from ~0.76 to ~0.29.

 

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling: Ken Clifton | algaedoc via Wikimedia CommonsLeatherback sea turtle hatchling: Ken Clifton | algaedoc via Wikimedia Commons

As the IUCN Red List notes, the decline in nesting of leatherback turtles has been far greater than 80 percent in most Pacific populations, the species' major stronghold. Global adult female populations have fallen by more than 70 percent in less than one turtle generation. Current annual nesting  mortality for females is estimated at ~30 percent.

That means adult females stand a nearly one-in-three chance of dying every year.

Add to that the increasing rates of nesting failure in a warming world and you get the fast-track to extinction for a species that's survived 110 million years of pre-human challenges.

The paper:

  • Santidrián Tomillo P, Saba VS, Blanco GS, Stock CA, Paladino FV, et al. (2012) Climate Driven Egg and Hatchling Mortality Threatens Survival of Eastern Pacific Leatherback Turtles. PLoS ONE 7(5): e37602. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602

Polluters Ran Amok Under Romney, Says Watchdog

| Thu May 24, 2012 2:49 PM EDT

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney made a number of decisions that significantly limited the state's ability to crack down on environmental crimes, according to the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

On Thursday, the group released a recap of Romney's efforts to cut and reorganize the state's enforcement agencies. His time as governor was marked by budget cuts, understaffed and underfunded agencies, and lax enforcement, PEER said.

Just weeks after taking office in 2003, he announced a plan to centralize the state's legal services and lay off as many as half of its attorneys, including many within the Department of Environmental Protection. In rolling out the plan, Romney's chief legal counsel Daniel Winslow singled out environmental positions as a target for cuts in an interview with Lawyers Weekly. Critics said the move would limit the state's ability to prosecute environmental crimes, as the DEP was already "chronically understaffed" and would likely have to drop some cases. In the end, Romney's reorganization plan was stymied by opposition from enviros, unions, and residents.

His administration also cut the DEP's budget by almost a third, and temporarily closed its Northeastern Regional Office in Wilmington, Mass. An internal DEP memo that the Boston Globe obtained noted that these cuts were hurting the state. "Over the long term ... these budget and staffing cuts cannot be sustained without significantly increasing risks to public health and the environment and increasing serious operational and service delivery problems for the agency," it said. 

In 2004, Romney's administration was accused of suppressing a report that detailed problems within the Massachusetts Environmental Police (MEP), which enforces laws related to pollution, wildlife and marine safety. The report, which was conducted by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, found that the police staffing was "inadequate," the programs were "grossly under-funded," and that the department had "weak leadership and management." Just 105 of the 130 full-time posts were filled, and the pay for environmental enforcement officers was far lower than other law enforcement in the state.

PEER later conducted its own survey of MEP staff, and found that 97 percent of respondents felt that the police force was not sufficiently funded "to fulfill its environmental mission." Ninety-nine percent felt it wasn't sufficiently staffed. Nearly three-quarters disagreed with the statement that they had "confidence in the professionalism" of the MEP managers they report to. Staff confidence in the state's enforcement agency was pretty abysmal.

New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett says this history is indicative of Romney's disregard for enforcing the state's environmental laws. "Romney's approach to enforcement was to use it as a last resort, and to be as friendly to business as possible," she said. "I shudder to think what it would be like if he implemented those policies nationwide."

Heartland Institute in Financial Crisis After Billboard Controversy

| Thu May 24, 2012 2:43 PM EDT

The Heartland Institute

This story first appeared on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The ultra-conservative Heartland Institute admitted it was in financial crisis on Wednesday, with the flight of corporate donors making it difficult to pay staff or cover the costs of its annual conference aimed at debunking climate science.

In a speech at the close of this year's climate conference, Heartland's president, Joseph Bast, acknowledged that a provocative ad campaign comparing believers in man-made climate change to psychopaths had exacted a heavy cost.

However, Bast also attributed Heartland's current problems to his weakness in financial management.