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Scott Pruitt took a $14,000 flight to Oklahoma to talk about closing EPA offices

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned on Friday, following revelations that he had taken at least two dozen private and military flights at taxpayer expense since May. But who hasn’t been taking private flights among the members of President Trump’s Cabinet? We now know that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have all flown on noncommercial or government planes rather than commercial ones, collectively racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs to taxpayers. Zinke went so far as to fly on a plane owned by oil and gas executives after giving a motivational speech to Las Vegas’ new National Hockey League team.

For Pruitt, the news comes as he’s found himself battling several other mini-scandals from his short tenure. He’s faced congressional inquiries for having an 18-person, 24-hour security detail, building a nearly $25,000 secure phone booth for himself, and taking frequent trips to his home state of Oklahoma. But the most jarring aspect of his plane controversy is how it looks against the Trump administration’s proposal to cut one-third of the EPA budget.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Pruitt has taken at least four trips on chartered and government flights since his confirmation, at a cost of $58,000, according to documents provided to a congressional oversight committee. The EPA has defended Pruitt’s travel by saying the four noncommercial flights were for necessary trips to meet stakeholders around the country and that there were special circumstances that prevented commercial flying.

But what exactly was Pruitt up to on these trips? On one of them, his only public meeting in Oklahoma, he and six staffers took an Interior Department plane from Tulsa to Guymon, a town in Oklahoma’s panhandle, at a cost of $14,400. The trip’s stated purpose was to meet with landowners “whose farms have been affected” by a federal rule making more bodies of water subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act. Pruitt has argued for overturning the rule since before his arrival at the EPA, and he has begun the process of reversing it.

One of the things Pruitt reportedly talked about in his meetings with farmers in late July was closing the EPA’s 10 regional offices and reassigning staff to work in state capitals. According to an affiliate of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau that helped organize the event and was tweeting about his remarks that day, Pruitt floated the idea to an audience of farmers assembled in Guymon.

A screenshot of the tweet provided to Mother Jones. The original tweet appears to have been deleted.

The farm policy publication Agri-Pulse took note of the tweet and requested comment from the EPA at the time. Agency spokesperson Liz Bowman told the publication that Pruitt “believes it is his responsibility to find the best and most efficient way to perform environmental protection” but repeated that there weren’t plans to close any regional offices “in the foreseeable future.”

Politico reported earlier this year that the White House was looking at shutting down two of the EPA’s 10 regional offices in its budget request. A Chicago Sun Times columnist reported that the Chicago EPA office, where 1,000 people work, could be on the chopping block. Though the agency quickly denied the rumors, there were protests not just from EPA staff, but from Democratic and Republican politicians representing areas that would be affected. By June, the idea appeared to be off the table. That month, Pruitt told members of the House Appropriations Committee that he did not intend to close regional offices. He dismissed the reports that he was considering closing the Chicago office as “pure legend,” saying, “It is not something that is under discussion presently.”

The EPA employs roughly 15,000 people, many of whom work across the country in regional offices, carrying out day-to-day environmental oversight and delivering grants to fund state environmental programs. In early May, Democratic senators who sit on the oversight committee for the EPA wrote to Pruitt, “Whether reviewing discharge permits for compliance with Federal pollution standards and state water quality standards, or inspecting facilities to see if they are operating in compliance with their permits, we count on regional staff to provide guidance to state pollution control staff, the public and regulated entities.” Regional staff, for instance, have played a key role in the response to recent hurricanes, analyzing soil and water samples for contamination. It’s unlikely that Pruitt would seek simply to move the EPA’s regional office staffers to state offices. He has already sought to cut more than 1,000 positions from the agency through buyouts, and the closure of regional offices could be an additional pretense to eliminate jobs.

On Thursday, the EPA declined to give Mother Jones more context on Pruitt’s remarks about regional offices that day or why he would be floating the idea well after denying it was under consideration. Instead, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox offered this statement: “Anyone that takes time to read President Trump’s budget will realize that no money is allocated to close down regional EPA offices.”

The president of the EPA employees union, John O’Grady, commented that closing regional offices and moving the regulators into state capital buildings would be “a whole ball of wax” that the administration hasn’t thought through.

“If they do that, I’m going to come out and say quite frankly we’re thrilled that the administration has decided to put U.S. EPA employees at the state office,” he said. “Now we can tell for sure that the states are following federal laws correctly.” He added, “They’re trying to dilute the EPA as a cohesive unit. They’re trying to get rid of us.”

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Scott Pruitt took a $14,000 flight to Oklahoma to talk about closing EPA offices

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Thirteen – Henry S. F. Cooper

READ GREEN WITH E-BOOKS

Thirteen
The Apollo Flight That Failed
Henry S. F. Cooper

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: December 31, 2013

Publisher: Open Road Media

Seller: OpenRoad Integrated Media, LLC


An “exciting” minute-by-minute account of the Apollo 13 flight based on mission control transcripts from Houston ( The New York Times ).  On the evening of April 13, 1970, the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13 were just hours from the third lunar landing in history. But as they soared through space, two hundred thousand miles from earth, an explosion badly damaged their spacecraft. With compromised engines and failing life-support systems, the crew was in incomparably grave danger. Faced with below-freezing temperatures, a seriously ill crew member, and a dwindling water supply, a safe return seemed unlikely. Thirteen is the shocking, miraculous, and entirely true story of how the astronauts and ground crew guided Apollo 13 to a safe landing on earth. Expanding on dispatches written for the New Yorker , Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. brings readers unparalleled detail on the moment-by-moment developments of one of NASA’s most dramatic missions. “Cooper’s Thirteen is exciting. . . . Close to what may be an authentic poetry of our period.” — The New York Times “Make no mistake about it. Thirteen tells a marvelous story. A lot of readers will take the book at a single gulp, unable to stop reading.” — The Washington Post “[An] impressive piece of reportorial research . . . Compelling reading.” — Chicago Tribune Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. (1933–2016) was the author of eight books about NASA and space exploration, including Thirteen: The Apollo Flight That Failed. After graduating from Yale, he spent thirty-five years covering the space program as a staff writer for the New Yorker . A descendant of writer and environmentalist James Fenimore Cooper, he fought to preserve Otsego Lake, also known as Glimmerglass, a prominent feature in his ancestor’s writing. Cooper retired in Cooperstown, New York, bordering the lake he and his ancestor had both protected.  

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Thirteen – Henry S. F. Cooper

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Rebellious cities team up to post climate data taken down by the EPA.

Two years ago, a paper came out arguing that America could cheaply power itself on wind, water, and solar energy alone. It was a big deal. Policy makers began relying on the study. A nonprofit launched to make the vision a reality. Celebrities got on board. We named the lead author of the study, Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, one of our Grist 50.

Now that research is under scrutiny. On Monday, 21 scientists published a paper that pointed out unrealistic assumptions in Jacobson’s analysis. For instance, Jacobson’s analysis relies on the country’s dams releasing water “equivalent to about 100 times the flow of the Mississippi River” to meet electricity demand as solar power ramps down in the evening, one of the critique’s lead authors, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, told the New York Times.

Jacobson immediately fired back, calling his critics “nuclear and fossil fuel supporters” and implying the authors had sold out to industry. This is just wrong. These guys aren’t shills.

It’s essentially a family feud, a conflict between people who otherwise share the same goals. Jacobson’s team thinks we can make a clean break from fossil fuels with renewables alone. Those critiquing his study think we need to be weaned off, with the help of nuclear, biofuels, and carbon capture.

Grist intends to take a deeper look at this subject in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

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Rebellious cities team up to post climate data taken down by the EPA.

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Black Lives Matter is Bailing Out Women for Mother’s Day

Mother Jones

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Black Lives Matter has a big gift for some moms this Mother’s Day—their freedom. Groups affiliated with the police and criminal justice reform movement have been bailing black women out of jail ahead of the holiday on Sunday. The nationwide effort, dubbed National Black Mamas Bail Out Day, seeks to reunite the women with their families and raise awareness of the disparate impact of incarceration and the bail system on black women.

So far, more than 50 women around the country have been bailed out by the Mother’s Day effort. Organizing groups in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, and 13 other cities, have been raising money through an online fundraising campaign. So far, they have brought in nearly $500,000 for the campaign, with $25,000 set aside for use in each city. The average bail paid off has varied widely; organizers in Atlanta bailed out 19 women with their pot of money, whereas 4 women have been bailed out in Oakland.

Activists have also raised money individually as well. Members of the Atlanta chapter of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBT-focused racial justice group, canvassed neighborhoods and collected small donations in a hat, according to Mary Hooks, an organizer with the chapter who came up with the idea for the nationwide initiative. “Black people have a tradition of using our collective resources to buy each other’s freedom,” she says, referring to the slavery-era practice of free black people saving money to purchase the freedom of their enslaved family members and friends. “We have an opportunity to do that when we understand how the cash bail system works. The sooner we can get folks out, the ability for them to mitigate their cases increases and the less collateral damage they are likely to incur.”

The organizers have drawn on their existing relationships with other criminal justice organizations to identify women to bail out of jail. In Oakland, the public defender’s office sent organizers names of women in jail, says Gina Clayton, an organizer with Essie Justice Group. Essie Justice organizers also sat in on arraignment hearings to identify women who would need to be bailed out. One of the people bailed out in Oakland was a mother of two who was jailed on a $10,000 bail about a week earlier, Clayton says. When organizers visited the woman to tell her they were paying her bail, she cried. Organizers with the Oakland office of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an immigrants’ rights group that focuses on black migrants, bailed out a Haitian woman who had been held in a detention facility in Southern California. The woman had fled domestic abuse in her home country, according to Devonte Jackson, an organizer with the group. BAJI bought the woman a bus ticket to Florida so she could visit her family for Mother’s Day.

The term “mama,” as it’s used by the National Black Mamas Bail Out Day campaign, is broadly defined to include not just women with biological children, but all women—including trans women—who are linchpins for their families and neighborhoods. “It’s about knowing and naming that black women play such a critical role in our communities,” Hooks says.

The number of women behind bars in the United States has increased 700 percent since 1980, according to the Sentencing Project. More than 100,000 women are currently in jail. Many have not been convicted of anything but are unable to make bail, and a disproportionate number of them are black. Eighty percent of incarcerated women are mothers, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

Nationally, the median bail set for a felony charge is $10,000, almost a year’s income for the average person unable to meet bail, according to the Sentencing Policy Initiative. Nearly 90 percent of inmates awaiting trial can’t afford bail; The average bail amount in felony cases has nearly tripled since 1990.

Bail reform is a key part of the national policy platform released last summer by the Movement for Black Lives, a broad coalition of groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of the groups bailing out women this week are also working on efforts to pass local and state legislation that would abolish cash bail in their jurisdictions. Earlier this year, New Orleans and New Jersey eliminated cash bail requirements for a range of low level offenses.

This weekend, organizers in some cities are holding events to welcome newly freed women back home. In Atlanta, organizers are hosting a picnic for the women and their families on Mother’s Day. Volunteers will help connect the women with resources for housing, employment, and legal assistance, Hooks says. The groups are also raising money for a possible bail-out effort to commemorate Father’s Day on June 18.

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Black Lives Matter is Bailing Out Women for Mother’s Day

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How to Pass a Thousand-Year Tax Cut

Mother Jones

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Republicans would like to pass a permanent tax cut. Sadly for them, Senate procedures prevent that. The only way to avoid a Democratic filibuster is to pass their tax plan via reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate and can’t be filibustered. But thanks to the Byrd Rule, any reconciliation bill that increases the deficit beyond a 10-year window is once again subject to a filibuster, and that would doom any tax measure. This limits Republicans to tax plans that sunset in 2028.

But wait. Maybe there’s an alternative. The Wall Street Journal explains:

President Donald Trump has said he wants to cut taxes, big-league, and Republicans are having trouble squeezing his ambitions into congressional rules forbidding bigger deficits after a 10-year budget scoring window.

Some lawmakers are exploring a way around that problem: Make the window bigger. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) suggested last week a “longer horizon” to overcome obstacles posed by the process known as reconciliation….A 15-year, 20-year or 30-year budget window could let Republicans pass a temporary tax cut that is long enough to give companies confidence to invest but short enough so its fiscal effects peter out by the 2030s or 2040s.

Surprised? That’s because everyone always talks about the Byrd Rule forbidding deficit increases beyond a 10-year “budget window.” But that’s not what it says. Here’s the actual relevant language:

A provision shall be considered to be extraneous if it decreases revenues during a fiscal year after the fiscal years covered by such reconciliation bill or reconciliation resolution.

In this context, “extraneous” means it can be filibustered, and there’s nothing in there about ten years. That’s just custom. If Republicans felt like it, they could pass a bill that “covers” the next millennium and sunsets in 3018. Here is Daniel Hemel, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago:

“I don’t think there’s anything magical about the number 10, other than 10 has been the maximum number for long enough that 11 would seem like a break from Senate norms.”

But who cares about Senate norms? Not Republicans. So there must be something more to this or they’d just go ahead and do it. One possibility is that there are still a handful of old-school deficit hawks left in the party, and they won’t vote for a longer budget window. Or there might be some arcane technical issue involved. I would be fascinated to hear from a real budget expert on this.

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How to Pass a Thousand-Year Tax Cut

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Will Forcing High School Kids to Make a Post-Graduation Plan Actually Help Them?

Mother Jones

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel got a lot of attention two weeks ago when he announced a new graduation requirement for high school seniors: They would have to have a plan. Starting with the class of 2020, Chicago Public School students will be required to show proof of their next step after graduation—such as a college acceptance letter or a job offer. It may seem like a good motivational tool, but in a city where access to resources depends on your neighborhood, and where budget cuts have strained existing programs, some observers consider the mayor’s proposal “deeply insulting.”

So says Stacy Davis Gates, the political and legislative director for the Chicago Teacher’s Union, who adds, “It spits in the face of everything we know about CPS right now.”

Emanuel announced the proposal (“Learn. Plan. Succeed: A Degree For Life”) in early April. Students will have to show a school counselor that they have a post-secondary plan. It needn’t be college or a job: A kid also can enlist in the military or find an apprenticeship or a “gap-year” program, among other options. There are exceptions for students facing special circumstances, including incarceration. Emanuel wants to “make 14th grade universal,” as he told CBS. Graduates of the school system, meanwhile, are automatically eligible to attend the City Colleges of Chicago.

The mayor first explored the idea in conversations with Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama, and who once ran the Chicago schools. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to greenlight “Learn. Plan. Succeed” at its next meeting.

On its face, the program reflects the goals of teachers and principals: to prepare kids for a bright future. Janice Jackson, the chief education officer for the Chicago schools, compares Emanuel’s proposal to others that faced opposition at first, such as mandatory ACT testing and the requirement that kids complete a program of community service in order to graduate.

According to internal reports from local high schools, about 60 percent of students already graduate with a plan. Emanuel is intent on ensuring that half of all public school students end up with a college or career credential (from internships, work experience, etc.) by 2019—up from around 40 percent today. Under his new proposal, the school district will spend $1 million to make sure each school has at least one counselor well trained in college advising. Additional specialists will be hired to work externally with colleges and employers, Jackson says.

Emanuel’s critics, however, doubt that $1 million is enough. They also express frustration that the city isn’t doing more to tackle systemic problems, including: slashed budgets, school closures, and overcrowded classrooms—city schools may even end classes three weeks early this year due to a lack of funding. The Rev. Jesse Jackson joined the dissenters this week, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times that “a majority of young black high school graduates are looking for work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality.”

The same morning Emanuel introduced “Learn. Plan. Succeed,” he also announced that the city may close multiple schools on the South Side and build one new high school there at a cost of $75 million. (A school district spokeswoman said on Thursday that no final decisions have been made.) Gates, the teachers’ union rep, claims this is in line with Emanuel’s “lead by press release” style: using a flashy proposal to steer the media away from the district’s persistent troubles.

According to research from the Urban League, more than half of Chicago public school students are in majority-black, majority-poor schools. The district has a 37 percent achievement gap in grade-level proficiency between its white and black students.

The district’s Janice Jackson says the funds generated for the new program should allow all schools to meet the new requirement by 2020. She acknowledges the resource disparities between richer and poorer schools, but “now that it’s a requirement, I think that that 40 percent of kids who don’t have a post-secondary plan will have one, and they’ll benefit as a result.”

Gates begs to differ. She says the counselor-to-student ratio varies widely across the city, and that 63 percent of high schools have counselors handling more kids than recommended. “As a district, we would fail miserably in meeting this harebrained idea,” she told me. “There are not enough resources to support something like this. Remember, getting a diploma is not a senior year activity. Getting a diploma and getting ‘college ready’ is something that starts in early childhood.”

Chicago’s budget woes largely come from the top. The district had to cut $46 million from its budget earlier this year, meaning less money for textbooks, afterschool programs, and field trips. Emanuel’s handling of the schools has been repeatedly criticized. Teachers called a 2012 strike to seek better benefits, proper job evaluations, and additional training. In 2013, the mayor decided to close 50 schools, mostly in black and Latino communities.

Sheryl Bond, who works as a counselor at George Washington High School, says she supports the goals of the the new policy, but considering that counselors are already trying to help kids plan their futures, and since it’s easy enough to put a “plan” on paper, she’s skeptical whether the “plan” requirement will change anything. “Is this going to be a compliance issue,” she asks, “or are we going to make sure that kids have a real plan?”

Kristy Brooks, a Chicago elementary school counselor, also doesn’t see how giving kids another hoop to jump through will help. “The only thing standing in the way of our kids having a bright future is that nobody’s forcing them to have some sort of plan? I don’t think so,” Brooks says. “If a kid makes it far enough to graduate high school, they’re doing it for a reason.”

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Will Forcing High School Kids to Make a Post-Graduation Plan Actually Help Them?

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LAPD Adopts New Policy: De-Escalate First, Shoot Later

Mother Jones

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This is from the LA Times yesterday:

The Los Angeles Police Commission voted Tuesday to require officers to try, whenever possible, to defuse tense encounters before firing their guns — a policy shift that marks a significant milestone in the board’s attempts to curb shootings by police.

Wait. This is new? This hasn’t always been LAPD policy? Apparently not, and apparently not much of anywhere else, either:

As criticism of policing flared across the country, particularly after deadly shootings by officers, law enforcement agencies looked to de-escalation as a way to help restore public trust. Like the LAPD, other departments have emphasized the approach in training and policies.

The Seattle Police Department requires officers to attempt de-escalation strategies, such as trying to calm someone down verbally or calling a mental health unit to the scene. Santa Monica police have similar rules in place, telling officers to try to “slow down, reduce the intensity or stabilize the situation” to minimize the need to use force.

….The focus on de-escalation represents a broader shift in law enforcement, said Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor and expert in police accountability. Now, he said, there’s an understanding that officers can shape how an encounter plays out. “This is absolutely the right thing to do,” he added.

This is especially important in Los Angeles:

African Americans continue to represent a disproportionate number of the people shot at by officers. Nearly a third of the people shot at last year were black — a 7% increase from 2015. Black people make up about 9% of the city’s population but 40% of homicide victims and 43% of violent crime suspects, the report noted.

The LAPD also topped a list of big-city agencies with the highest number of deadly shootings by officers. Police in Los Angeles fatally shot more people than officers in Chicago, New York, Houston and Philadelphia did, the report said. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department came in second, with 15 deadly shootings.

Go ahead and call me naive, but I would have figured that de-escalation was standard protocol everywhere. Not always followed in practice, of course, but at least theoretically what cops are supposed to do. But apparently not. It sounds like it started to catch on after Ferguson, and is only now being adopted as official policy in a few places.

Better late than never, I suppose, but I wonder what’s stopping this from being universally adopted? What’s the downside?

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LAPD Adopts New Policy: De-Escalate First, Shoot Later

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Scientists say that human-caused climate change rerouted a river.

Raj Karmani was a graduate student in computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when his frequent trips to the neighborhood bagel store opened his eyes to food waste. Most of the unsold bagels usually went into the trash. Karmani’s obsession with efficiency got him thinking: What if there were an app that would sync up businesses with fresh, excess food and organizations in need of it? In 2013, he started Zero Percent, an online platform for food donation.

Here’s how it works: First, a food producer at a commercial kitchen, say a restaurant or bagel shop, opens an Uber-style app and drops in detailed data about the excess food: the amount, where to pick it up, when to pick it up, etc. Then, a delivery person, hired by Zero Percent, scoops up the food and drops it off at any number of youth groups, community centers, or nonprofits that have also signed up for the app and signaled a need.

Right now, Zero Percent operates in the Chicago area and in Urbana-Champaign (but plans to expand), and its biggest clients include the University of Illinois and the local Salvation Army. Karmani says Zero Percent has delivered more than 1,000 meals. As a well-educated and relatively well-off immigrant, the experience has been eye-opening for him. “Some of these kids have never seen strawberries.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.

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Scientists say that human-caused climate change rerouted a river.

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Chicago wants to dominate in renewable energy.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the reef isn’t dead — not yet. But aerial surveys show that 900 miles of the 1,400-mile-long reef have been severely bleached in the past two years.

Bleaching occurs when warm water causes stressed-out corals to expel symbiotic algae from their tissues; corals then lose their color and their chief source of food, making them more likely to die.

Last year’s El Niño–induced bleaching event was devastating, knocking out two-thirds of the corals in the northern section of the reef. We’d hoped that 2017 would bring cooler temperatures, giving the fragile ecosystem some much needed R&R.

Instead, temperatures on Australia’s east coast were still hotter than average in the early months of this year, and on top of that, the reef’s midsection took a hit from a big cyclone in March.

ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

This is the first time the reef has experienced back-to-back annual bleaching events. If this keeps happening, it’ll quash the reef’s chances for recovery and regrowth, a process that can take a decade or longer under normal conditions.

Under the abnormal conditions of climate change, though, there is little reprieve — unless we, y’know, address the root of the problem itself.

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Chicago wants to dominate in renewable energy.

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United Airlines Lost a Billion Dollars This Morning

Mother Jones

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The most important story of the past 24 hours—by a mile—is the guy who was dragged off an overbooked United flight yesterday by a security team. The details are still a little sketchy, but the YouTube video is awesome and the guy has an actual scratch on his face. The Chicago PD officer who dragged off the passenger has been suspended, and United’s president has apologized. Luckily for social media, he apologized in kind of a ham-handed way that gave the incident a whole new cycle of snark on Twitter. So far President Trump hasn’t weighed in, but give him time. He might get bored and decide later today to nationalize UAL.

In the meantime, Felix Salmon wants us to believe that this hasn’t hurt United’s stock price. Hah! What a corporate shill he is. Behold the chart below:

That’s about $1 billion in market cap right there. This is the power of Twitter and Facebook, my friends.

On the bright side for UAL, this will probably last only a day or so, sort of like Donald Trump’s random taunts at companies he doesn’t like. Tomorrow some other airline will do something outrageous and we’ll all vow never to fly them ever again. I’m pretty sure most of us have vowed never to fly every airline at some point or another, but since they all suck we don’t have much choice, do we? And they all overbook. And they all ferry their crews around on their own planes. And they all call security if a passenger won’t follow crew orders. This particular passenger just fought back a little more intensely than most. And people with cell phones were around.

Bad luck for United. Really, it could have happened to any of the fine holding companies that control the surly skies of America these days.

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United Airlines Lost a Billion Dollars This Morning

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