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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
December
12
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Progress is irresistible.

That’s an admittedly optimistic way to look at this week’s climate summit in Paris. After President Trump pulled the United States out of the 196-nation climate change accord, France filled the leadership vacuum. On Tuesday, 50 world leaders joined the French president’s call to “Make Our Planet Great Again.” Yes, he’s tweaking Mr. Trump.

France is also now funding the work of 13 American scientists, blowing a little raspberry at Washington’s decision to reduce funding for climate research. But Trump supporters may be saying: Smart move, Donald. Let French taxpayers pay for that stuff. The French summit also seeks to encourage private investors to step up and finance efforts to slow the emission of greenhouse gases. There are signs it’s working.

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg said that “America’s Pledge” – a coalition of cities, states, and businesses – is on track to meet the Paris accord goals to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent. “Our coalition now represents more than half of the US economy. It continues to grow,” said Mr. Bloomberg, The Washington Post reported.

As we report below from Iceland and Paris, many global investors see financing “negative emissions” projects as well as cleaner energy sources as not only a moral choice, but a smart business move. Irresistible progress.

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Here are our five stories selected to illustrate innovation, direct democracy, and generosity at work in the world.

1. In Alabama, a spotlight moment for history – and future

Who are Alabamians? For many voters, Tuesday’s election reflects how they see themselves, and how they’re perceived. It’s a statement about the state’s identity.

David
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore departed on horseback after he cast his ballot in Gallant, Ala., Dec. 12.
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Carlo Allegri/Reuters
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAt stake in Alabama’s special election is not just a United States Senate seat but, to many, the image the state projects of itself to the world. Supporters of the controversial Republican Roy Moore have embraced his unbending stand for traditional values and railing against the GOP establishment as just the kind of rabble-rousing, nose-thumbing rebelliousness for which Alabama has long been famous. “Alabama’s always had a fiercely independent streak,” explains GOP pollster and consultant Whit Ayres. “George Wallace came from Alabama, and stood in the schoolhouse door to tell the federal government to get lost.” Supporters of Democrat Doug Jones, on the other hand, want to shed that renegade reputation, which they see as rooted in regrettable chapters in Alabama’s history. To them, electing Mr. Moore, who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s, would cement the state’s “backward” image. “We’re tired of being embarrassed by our elected officials, tired of being embarrassed by the poor educational and election outcomes of our state,” says Elizabeth BeShears, a young conservative columnist for AL.com, speaking about her generation. 

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1. In Alabama, a spotlight moment for history – and future

When the results are tallied in Tuesday’s high-stakes special election, Alabamians will have chosen not only their next United States senator – but, many say, which image of their state they want to project to the world.

Loyal supporters of controversial Republican candidate Roy Moore have expressed pride in his unbending, court-defying stand for faith in God, traditional marriage, and the unborn, and his railing against the GOP establishment and “fake news.” It’s the kind of rabble-rousing, nose-thumbing rebelliousness for which Alabama has long been famous.

“Alabama’s always had a fiercely independent streak,” explains GOP pollster and consultant Whit Ayres. “George Wallace came from Alabama, and stood in the schoolhouse door to tell the federal government to get lost,” says Mr. Ayres, referring to the Democratic governor of Alabama who opposed integration in the turbulent 1960s, when the state was ground zero for the civil rights movement.

Supporters of Democrat Doug Jones, meanwhile, have said it’s time to turn the corner on that renegade reputation, which they see as rooted in regrettable chapters in Alabama’s history. To them, electing Mr. Moore, who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s, would cement the state’s “backward” image – something many Alabamians, and not just Democrats, want to move beyond.

“We’re tired of being embarrassed by our elected officials, tired of being embarrassed by the poor educational and election outcomes of our state,” says Elizabeth BeShears, a young conservative columnist for AL.com, speaking about her generation. She says many young Republicans view Moore as perpetuating negative stereotypes about the state.

Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones greets supporters outside Bethal Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Dec. 12.
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John Bazemore/AP

In a highly unusual move, Alabama’s own senior Republican senator, Richard Shelby, publicly said that instead of voting for Moore, he opted to write in another Republican on his absentee ballot. "The state of Alabama deserves better," he told CNN on Sunday.

Senator Shelby said he finds the charges of sexual misconduct against Moore credible. And he is concerned the election could tarnish the state’s image among corporate investors, whom the longtime senator has worked hard to bring to the state. Neither the Alabama Business Council nor the US Chamber of Commerce supported Moore.

“The business community has concerns about the image of Alabama because we have attracted a lot of domestic and foreign investment,” Shelby told The Wall Street Journal this month. “In the last 25 years, a lot of us have tried to tell the world that Alabama is open for business, a good place to do business.’’

A transitioning economy

The Huntsville area in Appalachian northern Alabama stands as one of those welcome signs that the state is transitioning from a largely agricultural economy to one that’s more technology-oriented.

A replica of a giant Saturn V rocket stands as a landmark at the US Space and Rocket Center there – anchoring a thriving aerospace and biotech community that Shelby has carefully tended from his influential perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Jones campaign made a point of describing Alabama as at a “crossroads” with its own history. It’s time to turn the page on poor health care and education, Mr. Jones has said. The state ranks near the bottom on both of those issues, and has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country.

In addition, Jones has stressed the need to end a crisis of confidence in Alabama’s elected officials.

Moore was twice removed from the state supreme court for refusing a federal court order to remove the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building, and later for refusing to implement the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage.

But he’s not the only elected official to have been forced from office. In April, the governor resigned when he faced impeachment over a finance and sex scandal. The state house speaker resigned after being convicted of felony ethics violations in 2016.

Jones, a lawyer and son of a steelworker, has also very deliberately promoted himself as a champion of racial justice in a state that’s politically divided along racial lines.

When he was US Attorney, he successfully prosecuted Klansmen responsible for the 1963 bombing at the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four African-American girls. The Jones campaign is relying on an intense get-out-the-vote effort among blacks: one recent Sunday morning, Jones visited nine black churches in Tuscaloosa.

Yet African-Americans have been discouraged since Barack Obama left the White House, and Anthony Cook, who sings in the choir at 16th St. Baptist, was not confident they would turn out for Jones. He says he’s noticed a distinct rise in racism since Trump took office, citing an example at his own workplace.

At the very least, Mr. Cook says, blacks “should be voting because of what we went through” to secure that right. Civil rights activists, however, say that Alabama’s 2011 voter ID law – which requires voters to show a driver’s license or other valid form of photo identification at the polls – has been suppressing minority turnout.

Jones has also tried to appeal to educated, suburban Republicans by promising to work across the aisle, including with President Trump, saying it’s time to heal division.

That sounded appealing to Susan, a lifelong Republican who stopped to talk outside a pharmacy in the wealthy Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, where Jones lives. Appealing except for one thing: social issues that this retired interior designer holds sacred.

“[Jones] does present himself as a middle-of-the-roader,” she said. But he is “extremely liberal on abortion and same-sex marriage, and I’m not for those things.”

'They see that baby as a soul'

Abortion is a big issue for many Alabamians.

“People down here are very religious and they see that baby as a soul,” says Richard Mauk, chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party, where Birmingham is located. “It’s very important to them. It even transcends jobs.”

Several voters who enthusiastically told the Monitor they backed Moore at a Montgomery rally in September said they still stood strongly behind the state’s former chief justice, who is a Vietnam veteran and graduate of West Point. They don’t think he would reflect badly on Alabama.

Claire Hubbard says the left has tried to “ruin a man who was falsely accused” and never been proven guilty. Indeed, Moore denies the allegations.

“Roy Moore will do what is right in Washington and will get things done. I don't believe Alabama's image is nearly so tainted as the Washington swamp that is trying to keep a good, conservative man out,” this grandmother wrote in an email.

“The people of Alabama will not be dictated to,” agreed B. B. Sellers, reflecting that fierce independence for which Alabama is so well known.

Yet Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn University, cautions against overplaying the state’s singularity.

Alabamians gave Trump a 28-point margin over Hillary Clinton last year – but they’re not all that different from Trump supporters anywhere else in the country, Professor Flynt says.

“A lot of Alabamians feel an elite world out there puts them down and makes fun of them,” he says, pointing to Moore’s campaign message against “establishment” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

It is the same message preached by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who has campaigned for Moore in Alabama, and is looking for GOP candidates to challenge Senate Republican incumbents in other states.

Similarly, while young conservatives may object to Moore (Flynt detects no enthusiasm for him on the conservative Auburn campus), they are not unlike other young voters around the country – less loyal to party and more accepting of same-sex marriage.

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2. What New York bomb attempt says about lone-wolf terrorism

This story looks at the nature of security in New York City, and concludes that “lone wolf” suicide bombers aren’t particularly successful – at least in the US.

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAs many New Yorkers express relief at the relatively minor impact of the latest terror attack on their city, experts say one fact may be worth noting: There has never been a successful suicide bombing on US soil. Since 9/11, there has been only one in the United States, according to the University of Chicago – a domestic act of terror on an IRS office in Texas. Both suicide attacks and those that attempt to hide homemade bombs in public places are rarely successful, and law enforcement has become adept at thwarting both. When it comes to the sort of homemade bombs used by Brooklyn resident Akayed Ullah, “these devices aren’t really sophisticated, and they often fail,” says one expert. Even so, the attempted attack in New York comes as suicide attacks around the globe have reached record levels. But in the US, the majority of Islamic State-inspired terror attempts have been perpetrated by “lone wolf” actors. “We really don’t have terror cells here,” says Charles Strozier, director of the John Jay College Center on Terrorism, citing structural and cultural factors. "Our Muslim American community here is much more assimilated, peaceful, and middle class than the communities in Europe.”

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2. What New York bomb attempt says about lone-wolf terrorism

When New York officials gathered outside the Port Authority in Manhattan on Monday to discuss the failed subway bombing a few hours earlier, they expressed a city’s collective sense of relief.

“It’s in many ways one of our worst nightmares,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But the “counter reality,” he said, turned out better than initial expectations and fears. “This is New York and we all pitch together and we are a savvy people and we keep our eyes open.”

On a packed subway system that serves more than 5.6 million riders, its cars and platforms teeming with shoulder-to-shoulder commuters every workday, many New Yorkers have long been aware of the havoc a single explosion could wreak.

“Let’s be clear, as New Yorkers, our lives revolve around the subways,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday. “When we hear of an attack on the subways, it’s incredibly unsettling... Thank God the perpetrator did not achieve his ultimate goals. Thank God our first responders were there so quickly to address the situation and make sure people were safe. Thank God the only injuries that we know at this point were minor.”

Yet even as many New Yorkers express such relief at the relatively minor impact of the latest terror attack on their city, experts point out that both suicide attacks and those that attempt to hide homemade bombs in public places are rarely successful.  

Only three people sustained minor injuries from the crude, homemade pipe bomb assembled by Akayed Ullah, the Bangladeshi immigrant who lived in Brooklyn for seven years and carried out Monday's failed attack. Stuffed with match heads and wired with Christmas tree lights, authorities said, his bomb, strapped to his body with velcro straps, blew up accidentally and caused serious burns and injuries to his abdomen.

Indeed, there has never been a successful suicide bombing on US soil. And since 9/11, there has only been a single suicide attack in the United States, according to a database compiled by the University of Chicago – a domestic act of terror that did not involve warped religious beliefs.

In 2010, a Texas man, Andrew Joseph Stack III, deliberately flew his single-engine plane into an Internal Revenue Office in Austin, citing the “greed” and “insanity” of the nation’s tax collectors. His suicide attack killed one IRS worker and injured 13.

The worst terrorist bombing in US history was perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, the American domestic terrorist who detonated a fertilizer truck bomb in front of a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 10 pre-school children.

And even when it comes to the sort of homemade bombs used by Mr. Ullah, “these devices aren’t really sophisticated, and they often fail,” says Don Haider-Markel, professor and chair of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and an expert in terrorism and counterterrorism measures. “And most of the failures you don’t even hear about, because they’re usually when somebody makes one and puts it into someone’s mailbox, or puts it in front of someone’s door – maybe it happens in Iowa somewhere, and it never makes national news.”

In 2013, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev built two homemade bombs and planted them near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds. But most others were unsuccessful, experts say.

String of failures

In 2016, a husband and father from Afghanistan, Ahmad Khan Rahimi, who lived most of his life in New Jersey, planted nine explosives in New York and New Jersey, but most failed to explode. After one of his home-made devices blew up a dumpster in Manhattan, one New Yorker walking half a block away with his wife and two young daughters thought, “Oh, that’s all you got?” (That bravado was echoed by many New Yorkers Monday, including talk show host Stephen Colbert, who said, “You tried to terrorize New York and you failed. We’re stronger than that. The worst you did is make the subways run late — and the M.T.A. does that just fine without your help.”)

In 2010, the naturalized US citizen Faisal Shahzad, who trained with bombmakers in Pakistan, botched his attempt to explode a vehicle in Times Square.

These were just the latest in a string of failures since the 9/11 attacks. In 2001, the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was foiled in his attempt to light the fuse and bring down a flight from Paris to Miami. In 2009, the “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate his device on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.  

Even so, the attempted attack in New York comes as suicide attacks around the globe have reached record levels. Earlier this year, researchers at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that 2016 was the deadliest year on record for suicide terror attacks worldwide: there were nearly 500 attacks in 28 countries that killed about 5,650 people.

But in the United States, the majority of Al Qaeda and ISIS-inspired terror attempts have been perpetrated by “lone wolf” actors, without the support of wider networks.

“We really don’t have terror cells here in the United States,” says Charles Strozier, director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “And that is because there are some very important structural and cultural factors at work.”

“Our Muslim-American community here is much more assimilated, peaceful, and middle class than the communities in Europe,” which have more first generation, working class immigrants who tend to follow more fundamentalist ideologies, he explains.

The majority of suicide bombings around the world are carried out by groups fighting foreign occupation, according to the research of Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of the 2010 book, “Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.”

And fewer than 10 percent of such terrorists cross national borders to carry out their attacks, found Dr. Pape, the founding director of the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, which maintains the exhaustive database on global suicide attacks.  

Even in Europe, a number of attempted suicide bombings failed. In July 2016, the device of a Syrian terrorist exploded too early outside a German music festival, killing only the bomber. In Jakarta, Indonesia, a would-be terrorist’s backpack burned but failed to explode in a packed church. He then attacked and injured a priest with an axe. In August, a bomb blew up in the safe house of a terror cell in Spain, killing one member, before the group used a truck to kill 13 people on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.

But law enforcement has also become more savvy in thwarting such plots in New York, experts say.

In 2011, the NYPD arrested the Al Qaeda sympathizer Jose Pimentel just hours before he was about to finish a powerful pipe bomb in Harlem. In 2012, police arrested a Bangladeshi man here on a student visa after he tried to detonate a bomb in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in lower Manhattan.

And just this past October, the FBI and NYPD foiled a plot by three ISIS-inspired would-be terrorists who were also planning a bombing campaign in the subway system and other public places.

“Some kind of threat to the subways will always exist, and that’s just something we have to live with,” says Mr. Strozier. “Some ordinary citizens might not want to hear that, but I think that’s what we’ve accepted.”

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3. Dismay over ‘Brexit’ terms triggers calls for a new referendum

As Britain negotiates the terms of its exit from the European Union, there are calls for another referendum. Could it be that the "Brexit" policy that lives by direct democracy could also perish by it?

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadBritain’s exit from the European Union, dubbed “Brexit,” is spawning a new political phenomenon: “Bregret.” With the conclusion last week of the first phase of negotiations, a growing number of citizens are beginning to wonder whether leaving was such a good idea after all. That’s partly because on all the key issues so far, British negotiators have been forced to accept Brussels’ terms. If that pattern persists next year, it is hard to see how Britain could end up with the sort of good deal that Leave campaigners had promised. Pollsters are noticing a slow but clear shift toward a feeling that when the final terms of Brexit have been agreed, the British people should be allowed a say on whether they are good enough – in other words, a second referendum. Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled such a vote “out of the question.” But London has yielded in recent weeks to a lot of EU demands it had earlier called “out of the question.”

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3. Dismay over ‘Brexit’ terms triggers calls for a new referendum

When they meet in Brussels next Friday, European Union leaders are expected to greenlight the next phase of negotiations to set the terms of Brexit – Britain’s exit from the bloc.

British Prime Minister Theresa May may be breathing a sigh of relief that London last week overcame the first major hurdle in its negotiating marathon – a deal on the practical aspects of the divorce.

But the nature of that deal, which Britain secured only by accepting almost all of Brussels’ terms, is giving many citizens pause for thought. In a show of what the press has dubbed “Bregret,” more voters now think Britain was the wrong choice to leave the EU than still think it was the right decision – 47 percent to 42 percent, according to a YouGov poll.

And that is fueling calls for a second referendum that would give the British public a chance to approve or disapprove the final terms of the Brexit deal, due to be signed by March 2019. 

Ms. May has said such a vote is “out of the question.” But opposition Labour Member of Parliament Geraint Davies, who has tabled a bill calling for a second referendum, feels the tide is turning against that view.

He told the BBC that he sensed “a growing appetite from MP’s to give the people the final say,” because “the public don’t trust politicians making shoddy deals behind closed doors, especially when the government’s attitude seems to be to leave the EU whatever the cost.”

And he seems to have some public support. “Up until very recently, the majority of people were saying no when asked if they wanted a second referendum but in the last couple of months things have started to shift,” says Roger Awan-Scully, who teaches politics at Cardiff University in Wales.

In early December, a Survation public opinion poll found that for the first time, half of respondents said they would “support holding a referendum asking the public if they will accept or reject the deal.” 

Though voters who chose the “Leave” option at the June 2016 referendum are mostly sticking to their guns, “Remainers” who had bowed to the result then are now having second thoughts, Professor Awan-Scully says.

“The various difficulties and complications that have arisen with the negotiations seem to have given people reason to think it isn’t over yet and there could be some mechanism to reverse” Brexit, he explains. “It’s just not looking quite so inevitable anymore.” 

The shifts in opinion are slight, and will not necessarily persist, analysts caution. Next March, Britain and the EU will tackle the most important and most difficult issues at stake – notably the shape of London’s trade relationship with its biggest market, Europe.

Public opinion swings will undoubtedly depend heavily on how well the government is perceived to be doing.

“It’s pretty clear now ... that Brexit is turning out to be the most complicated and difficult thing that the UK has tried to do since we fought World War II,” says Awan-Scully. “While many ‘leave’ voters won’t have changed their views on leaving, they are pretty unimpressed with how that decision is being delivered on by government.” 

Parliament debated the prospect of a second Brexit referendum on Monday, as a result of four public petitions, signed by hundreds of thousands of citizens, demanding such discussion.

Petition debates do not end with votes, but it was clear that a majority of MP’s from both the ruling Conservative party and the Labour party opposed the idea of another referendum, arguing that to hold one would show disrespect for the will of the people as it was expressed in June last year. 

If attitudes continue to shift, however, Awan-Scully says they may have rethink this position. “We are definitely seeing a move in that direction,” he says, but it has not yet shifted “far enough for there to be real political pressure.” 

If negotiations next year go badly for Britain, though, and if public opinion turns more sharply against the prospect of a poor Brexit deal, “it will certainly put politicians in a difficult position,” he warns.

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4. Now, scientists act to deliver on politicians' climate goals

Where does the intersection of climate change innovation, bigger tomatoes, and fizzy drinks take place? Switzerland and Iceland, of course.

David
CarbFix have been pumping the CO2 emissions from Reykjavík (Iceland) Energy’s geothermal power plant underground since 2011.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
 

The 30 Sec. ReadTwo years after the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, scientists are scrambling to make the pledges politicians made in that landmark accord a reality. Even drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are not likely to be sufficient to keep temperature increases to just 2 degrees above preindustrial levels. Meeting that goal, climate scientists say, also requires investment in efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One idea that has shown some promise is technology that sucks CO2 out of the air and stores it underground. Scientists in Iceland have been pleasantly surprised to find that the gas, when dissolved at high pressure in water, mineralizes into solid rock within just a year or two. The technology is still in its infancy, and questions remain about its scalability. But as one carbon removal advocate puts it: "We need as many shots at goal as possible."

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4. Now, scientists act to deliver on politicians' climate goals

It doesn’t look like much: a white steel box the size of a small garden shed, a fan sticking out of one side, sitting in the middle of a stark volcanic lava field.

But it might just be one of the keys to humankind’s survival.

The box is a carbon dioxide collector. It sucks in air and filters out the greenhouse gas. Then the machine sends the gas to be pumped 2,000 feet underground into basalt bedrock. There, the gas turns into rock itself, locked away safely for hundreds of thousands of years.

The collector is testing one of the buzziest new technologies in the quest to save the world from potentially catastrophic global warming, direct air capture. Climate scientists have concluded that to avert disaster, reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone will not be enough. On top of that effort, one way or another, we will have to actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere too.

As global leaders meet Tuesday in Paris on the second anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, the world is waking up to a reality embedded in that accord: Of the 116 scenarios that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change maps out as offering a decent chance of keeping temperature rises at manageable levels by the end of the century, 101 of them rely on “negative emissions” technology.

“If we are serious about the target we absolutely need these technologies,” says Dr. Niall MacDowell, a clean energy expert at Imperial College, London. “In their absence it is impossible under any circumstances” to prevent temperatures from rising more than two degrees C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100.

Ideas for cleaning up the atmosphere range from planting more forests that would act as carbon sinks, to setting up vast arrays of the kind of CO2 collector now in pilot-project use outside Reykjavik. Skeptics scoff that these schemes are too expensive, or untested, or likely to take up land that farmers need to grow food. Others worry that they distract from the main challenge – reducing global emissions in the first place.

But even the doubters agree that “this does not mean that we should give up. We still have to explore these avenues,” as Glen Peters, a climate scientist at Center for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Oslo, puts it. “But we are probably not going to roll these technologies out easily,” he cautions.

Out of thin air

The difficulty hasn’t deterred the dreamers. Bill Gates and Richard Branson are among the wealthy entrepreneurs who are funding research into negative emissions technologies, known as NETs. And Climeworks, the Swiss company behind the CO2 collector in Iceland, is already making such technology a reality.

Climeworks has been sucking CO2 out of the air since July at an experimental installation near Zurich that is powered by heat from a waste incineration plant. They sell it to a nearby greenhouse, where it acts as a gaseous fertilizer, making tomatoes grow bigger and faster. The company is also selling its CO2 to manufacturers of fizzy drinks.

CarbFix is testing one of the buzziest new technologies in the quest to save the world from potentially catastrophic global warming, direct air capture.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Christoph Gebald, a co-founder of the firm, has his eyes set on a much bigger prize; Climeworks has sold some of its CO2 collectors to Audi, the German auto manufacturer, which is exploring ways of making synthetic fuel from carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Synthetic fuels “are a very big market opportunity for us,” says Mr. Gebald. “Just serving the aviation business will take gigatons of CO2 from direct air capture.”

Equally lucrative could be a scheme to bury CO2 and sell carbon credits to environmentally conscious corporations that want to erase their carbon footprint.

With this in mind, Climeworks has hooked up with CarbFix, a project that since 2011 has been pumping the CO2 emissions from Reykjavik Energy’s geothermal plant underground.

Scientists discovered, to their surprise, that the gas – dissolved at high pressure in water – mineralizes into solid rock within a year or two, not the thousands of years they had expected, quickly filling the pores in Iceland’s basalt substrate.

The single Climeworks extractor installed next to CarbFix’s pump can process only 50 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year – about the same as an average American family’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But the contraption is nonetheless the world’s first negative emissions plant, and by mid-2019 Gebald plans to set up an array of collectors big enough to capture 3,000 metric tons of CO2.

Selling carbon credits is a niche market for the time being, he acknowledges. It costs $600 to capture a metric ton of CO2 at the moment (and another $25 to pump and store it underground). At those prices the only viable customers might be low-emission, high profit companies such as banks and insurance companies.

As his company improves its technology and scales up its operations, though, the price of CO2 from direct air capture will come down to about $200 a metric ton within five years, Gebald predicts, and to $100 a metric ton by mid-century.

That would make it commercially very viable, he says. International logistics companies relying heavily on airplanes, for example, might want to go carbon neutral by buying credits from Climeworks. More ambitious firms could use them to go carbon negative.

“We are not a silver bullet,” Gebalt cautions. Big polluters such as fossil fuel power plants, cement factories, or fertilizer manufacturers, he says, would find his solution much too expensive. But since NETs are central to almost all the positive climate change scenarios that scientists have come up with, he says, his company’s work is essential. “If you want two degrees, you need Climeworks.”

... Including the carbon sink

The technology involved in sucking CO2 out of thin air and isolating it is still in its infancy, and questions remain about how easily the method could be scaled up enough to make an impact on climate change.

A negative emissions technology that is by no means in its infancy, however, is photosynthesis, nature’s own way of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, which has been operating for eons. Many scientists, seeking an easy, cheap, and tested method of mitigating climate change, are drawn to the simple option of planting forests and letting the trees act as a carbon sink.

But would that be so simple? Where might such giant forests be planted? Would they displace farmland? Could enough potential foresters be found and trained to look after them? Could we be sure that the forests would be maintained long enough to do the job assigned to them?

A variation on forestation, which would both absorb CO2 and generate power, is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS). This would involve planting large areas of the globe with biomass and then burning it in power plants to create electricity. The plants’ smokestacks would be fitted with equipment to scrub the smoke clean of CO2, which could then be stored underground.

A recent scientific review of different negative emissions technologies found BECCS to hold the greatest potential of any technology for cleaning up the atmosphere. It suggested that under ideal circumstances BECCS could absorb as much as 12 gigatons of CO2 a year – as much as the world needs to be sucking up by 2100 – but that it might take two India’s worth of land to grow the necessary amount of biomass.

This raises some difficult questions. How easily could a farmer be persuaded to stop growing food and start cultivating elephant grass or willow trees? And as the world’s population grows, where would the food to feed more hungry mouths come from? Equally important, how would huge plantations of biomass crops impact biodiversity, a cardinal ecological principle?

Carbon capture and storage uses existing technology, and is especially apt for dirty industries such as cement or fossil fuel power generation. “Carbon scrubbers” can be affixed to power plant stacks to filter CO2 before it enters the atmosphere.

Carbon capture and storage doesn't remove emissions already in the atmosphere (so not officially a negative emissions technology), but it could play a big future role in reducing emissions. In fact, though, only 22 large CCS projects exist worldwide today, according to Noah Deich, founder of the Center for Carbon Removal, a think tank based in Oakland, Calif.

That is because CCS installations add to manufacturers’ operating costs, and they have no incentive to use them other than the sense of being good corporate citizens, which has not yet proved sufficient motivation.

Bergur Sigfusson and his team at CarbFix were surprised to find that CO2 dissolved at high pressure in water mineralizes into solid rock within a year or two.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Make 'em pay

It will only become worth companies’ while to reduce their emissions when carbon has a price, either on a cap-and-trade market or through a carbon tax, say activists. And the same is true of negative emissions technologies. Some environmentally conscious corporations might pay Climeworks to capture and bury CO2 on their behalf because it is good for their images and their souls, but they are few and far between.

“To make direct air capture viable on a large scale we will need carbon pricing, through a tax or a market,” says Valentin Gutknecht, Climeworks’s marketing manager.

As yet, there is little sign of either ramping up, though most energy experts expect that a price will eventually be put on carbon, and that once in place it will rise.

Negative emissions technologies also need investment now if they are to have any hope of making a difference in time. Though philanthropists are financing moonshots, governments are still not paying much attention. In October the US Department of Energy announced grants worth $26 million to explore carbon-capture technologies – 10 times less than its fossil energy research and development budget for 2018.

A 2015 US Academy of Science report urged more federal funding to improve CO2 removal technologies, warning that “current technologies would take decades to achieve moderate results.”

That kind of caution and uncertainty suggest that the world would be unwise to bet too heavily on CO2 removal to solve its climate problem, especially if that meant easing up on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the first place.

The danger, says Nils Markusson, an environmental technology researcher at Lancaster University in Britain, is that “if you think there will be a solution to a risk, it encourages you to take more risk,” – what is known as “moral hazard.”

“Negative emissions include a variety of technologies not in routine use,” Dr. Markusson points out. “A lot of them might fail, and if we had already assumed they would be online by a certain date, counting on them and basing decisions on that, there is a risk that we would have burned our bridges.”

A lot of climate modeling “is based on expectations that we will be using technologies that are not yet tested,” Markusson adds. “That is very scary.”

“The world works differently from models,” points out Dr. Peters of CICERO. “In practice, much of this technology will not happen.”

For Mr. Deich, whose think tank is promoting all kinds of negative emissions technologies, this is an argument to try everything, even while we reduce CO2 emissions at a faster rate than we are managing now. “We need as many shots at goal as possible,” he says.

The technical challenges facing negative emissions technologies are enormous, Deich acknowledges, and the financial costs could be huge. But in the context of a $6 trillion a year energy market, the money to solve technical issues could be found, he insists.

The biggest question, he argues, is political. “Will we be able to communicate to governments the value of providing this service?” he wonders. “It is not a function of technical resources; it’s a matter of political will. And that is very difficult to predict.”

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. When 'Star Wars' fans combine dressing up with doing good

A group of fans drawn together by a passion about a fictional universe have formed a generous community for those in need on this planet. The Force is strong with this group. 

David
 

The 30 Sec. ReadDoug Wilder first saw his brother’s Imperial Army biker scout figure when he was young. “I kind of decided to become the action figure,” he says. Mr. Wilder, from Quincy, Mass., is part of the 501st Legion, a volunteer group of “Star Wars” fans who combine cosplaying with charity. Donations made in honor of the “bad guys doing good” to groups such as Make-a-Wish Foundation and Toys for Tots came in at an estimated $889,000 in 2016. Fan charities aren’t just limited to long, long ago in a galaxy far away: The Harry Potter Alliance’s Accio Books campaign donated more than 250,000 books. It also filled five cargo planes with supplies to help those in Haiti. And the International Federation of Trekkers' Federation Relief Mission Task Force collected relief supplies for those affected by hurricane Harvey. All of the efforts have in common a richly realized universe and fans that, now grown, want to use the ideals of those fictional worlds to do good in this one – and make things special for the next generation of fans. “The little moments like making the kids smile are always a lot more fun,” says Wilder. “And you’re reminded of why you put up with sweating in a giant plastic spaceman outfit.”

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5. When 'Star Wars' fans combine dressing up with doing good

On a rainy day in Woburn, Mass., Chewbacca was getting a hero’s welcome.

His costumed head held against his side, the man playing Han Solo's buddy was ambling over to his spot to get ready for a parade when a group of boys from Woburn Youth Hockey, also ready to head out on the parade route, spotted him. “CHEWIE!” the young hockey players shouted, and the "big walking carpet" resistance hero accommodated the boys, doling out high fives.

Dozens of members of the “Star Wars” fan groups – the 501st Legion and the Rebel Legion – headed out in the rain dressed as characters ranging from Princess Leia Organa to Stormtroopers to the malevolent Darth Vader himself.

It’s not just the fun of putting on a Stormtrooper helmet that motivates many of the members to sign on with the Empire or the Rebel Alliance. Both the 501st Legion, which represents the dark side, and the Rebel Legion, which represents the good guys, have charity and giving back as central aims.

Fan charities aren’t just limited to long, long ago in a galaxy far away: The Harry Potter Alliance, which aims to "turn fans into heroes," started an Accio Books campaign that donated more than 250,000 books all over the globe. It also filled five cargo planes with supplies to help those in Haiti. And the International Federation of Trekkers' Federation Relief Mission Task Force collected relief supplies and hygiene products for those affected by hurricane Harvey.

All of the efforts have in common a richly realized universe with a fandom that grew up loving the movies, books, and TV shows. Now grown, people use the ideals of those fictional worlds to do good in this one – and make things just a little more special for the next generation of fans.

“I started talking with the group and realized, this is – it’s not just the costume,” says Doug Wilder, a biker scout in the 501st Legion who is from Quincy, Mass. “It’s the public service, the charity and stuff, which made it a whole lot more valuable to me....”

'I kind of decided to become the action figure'

The 501st Legion was founded in 1997, while the Rebel Legion followed in 1999. The groups have paired with organizations including the American Red Cross, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Toys for Tots. And don’t be fooled by the 501st Legion’s sinister appearance – donations made in honor of the “bad guys doing good,” came in at an estimated $889,000 in 2016 and the organization contributed more than 182,000 volunteer hours.

Both the 501st Legion and the Rebel Legion do not take payment for appearances but point organizations in the directions of charities instead.

Erich Shafer, commanding officer of the New England Garrison of the 501st Legion and commanding officer of the Alderaan Base (which serves New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine) of the Rebel Legion, remembers first seeing members of the 501st at a walk for autism. “I looked at them like – you mean I can be 30 years old and play dress up and play plastic spaceman and get away with this and do it for a good cause?” he says.

Members of both the 501st and the Rebel Legion must be at least 18 in most states and have a professional-looking costume. Mr. Wilder first saw his brother’s action figure for the Imperial Army’s biker scouts (who chase Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on speeder bikes on Endor in “Return of the Jedi”) when he was young. The design has always appealed to him.

“I kind of decided to become the action figure,” he says.

Once in, members can go anywhere in the country and find a local “garrison.” “It’s sort of like a fraternity,” says Eric Brager, a legion member officer for the 501st Legion from West Newbury, Mass. who was dressed as Darth Vader for the Woburn parade.

Wilder says he loved feeling the kinship after he recently traveled to the Star Wars Celebration event in Orlando and posed for a group photo with hundreds of other members of the 501st Legion from around the country. “It was like, these are my people,” he says. “This is my family.”

'His eyes just lit up'

Many 501st and Rebel Legion members say they have memories of children whose day was brightened that have stayed with them. Joy Lochelt, the executive officer for the Rebel Legion’s Alderaan Base, says one of her favorite experiences was making a Clone Commander Gree costume for the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a child. “That was really fun,” she says, dressed in Princess Leia's Endor outfit from "Return of the Jedi." “He was so excited.”

Wilder remembers appearing at a Providence library as part of Star Wars Reads Day. He turned a corner to find a little boy holding a “Star Wars” encyclopedia who saw him and immediately turned pages, found the Imperial army biker scout, and pointed at it. “His eyes just lit up,” Wilder recalls.

Nick Norton, a squad leader for the 501st Legion’s Green Mountain Squad in Vermont, participated in a Make-A-Wish event in Rutland, Vt., in which high school student Ryan Farrington was told he was going to Disney World by Mr. Brager, dressed as Darth Vader, and other members of the 501st Legion. “It was pretty special,” Mr. Norton says.

It’s those times, rather than appearing on stage with singer “Weird Al” Yankovic, that make participating in the 501st Legion special to him, says Wilder.

“The little moments like making the kids smile are always a lot more fun,” he says. “And you just get a lot more energy and you’re reminded of why you put up with sweating in a giant plastic spaceman outfit.”

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The Monitor's View

An Arctic pact shows what’s possible

 

The 30 Sec. ReadDozens of countries eager to fish in the warming Arctic have wisely decided to hold off for 16 years, signing an international pact to that effect last month in Washington. Arctic fish are critical for other creatures such as polar bears and help sustain coastal native communities. If the ocean’s ecology proves too delicate, another five years could be added to the moratorium. More than a problem, the Arctic is now an opportunity to show how differences between nations can be resolved and an untouched environment preserved before it is exploited. An important principle has been applied: Better to understand a natural environment before meddling with it. Also, the pact opens the possibility for even more cooperation on other issues in the Arctic, such as territorial claims and oil exploration. As the Arctic warms, the non-fishing pact shows how a consensus about preservation can flip a problem into an opportunity.

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An Arctic pact shows what’s possible

For decades, the Arctic has been viewed as a problem, a place of tension between nations with competing claims to its potential wealth, especially as the ice cap recedes. The top of the world might become a new Wild West.

That view has now shifted after a new international pact was signed last month in Washington. Dozens of nations agreed to hold off on commercial fishing in waters roughly the size of the Mediterranean for 16 years while the Arctic habitat is studied under a joint research program. Arctic fish are critical for other creatures such as polar bears and help sustain coastal native communities. If the ocean’s ecology proves too delicate, another five years could be added to the moratorium.

More than a problem, the Arctic is now an opportunity to show how differences between nations can be resolved and an untouched environment preserved before it is exploited. An important principle has been applied: Better to act with caution and understand a natural environment before meddling with it.

The pact now opens the possibility for even more cooperation on other issues in the Arctic, such as territorial claims and oil exploration. A model of statesmanship has been established despite moves by some nations to define their underwater territory and tap the Arctic’s riches. Unilateral acts are now less likely.

Countries with large oceangoing fishing fleets have learned the hard way that fish stocks can easily collapse without international agreements that strictly regulate the size of catches. Environmental governance takes cooperation. And as the Arctic warms, the nonfishing pact shows how a consensus about preservation can flip a problem into an opportunity.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Helping students live their full potential

 

Across the globe, teachers, parents, and others have dedicated themselves to the question of how to help students live their full potential. For today’s contributor, a former school principal, this kind of care brings to thought an image used in the Bible to depict God’s love: a mother bird tenderly guiding her young so they can learn to fend for themselves. And she’s seen firsthand how affirming everyone’s unlimited potential as the child of God, our loving Father-Mother, can support others. This doesn’t apply only to those in the education profession. As the expression of God, ever-present Love, everyone has the ability to express qualities such as kindness, compassion, and unselfish care. The vitality of God’s love inspires our efforts to help others and illumines the pathway to success at school, work, and beyond.

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Helping students live their full potential

A recent Monitor article presented a heartwarming case study of the dedication of Indiana’s educational system to closing the achievement gap between racial and economic groups (“High-schoolers graduate in record numbers, but are they ready for what’s next?” CSMonitor.com). With a curriculum focused on college and career readiness, the district has not only set high expectations for all students but is focused on helping them live their full potential.

For me, the meticulous care taken to support student progress brings to thought the image of a mother bird brooding protectively over her young, tenderly guiding their efforts so that they can learn to fend for themselves – an image also used in the Bible to depict God’s nurturing love (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 32:11).

Christian Science identifies God as both Father and Mother, tenderly caring for His, Her, spiritual offspring – which is what we all are. Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy writes, “Father-Mother is the name for Deity, which indicates His tender relationship to His spiritual creation” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 332). Since God is infinite, ever-present Love and man is God’s expression, it is natural for each of us to express qualities such as kindness, compassion, and unselfish care for others.

So when school leaders work diligently to enable students to thrive, it is evidence of the Mother-love of God being graciously expressed. But regardless of what our day-to-day endeavors are, each of us has the opportunity to express our innate spiritual qualities to help improve the lives of others. Christ Jesus exemplified this standard of love throughout his career in healing and improving lives. He commanded his followers to love their neighbor as themselves. What a privilege it is to strive to obey that.

As the image, or reflection, of divine Love, everyone is capable of doing this. This is living to one’s full potential as God’s intelligent, worthy child. I found this to be true when I worked as a school principal. For instance, at one point there was a student who was experiencing “school phobia,” an extreme fear of going to school. Her report cards showed strong academic abilities, but when her parents brought her to school, she refused to get out of the car.

Her mother visited the neighborhood Christian Science Reading Room, a bookstore and quiet place for prayer, to explore spiritual truths that could help her daughter. She also engaged a Christian Science practitioner (a professional who helps others find healing through prayer) to pray about the situation.

As I prepared for school each day, I prayed to better understand that God did not create this condition, and therefore it was no part of anyone’s true identity and could be corrected. I knew that if I gained a clearer sense that God’s children cannot be limited from reaching their full potential, it would support this student’s ability to overcome her fear. I trusted that divine Love governs its creation intelligently and harmoniously.

Within a few days, the child started attending class, even though she was initially reluctant to make friends. Her teachers patiently helped her to adjust, and soon she began to respond to the love being expressed. By the end of the academic year, she exuded such confidence that she was chosen to sing a major part in a musical at school.

Caring for our fellow man is being Godlike. The vitality of God’s love inspires our efforts to help others. It illumines the pathway to success at school, work, and beyond.

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Viewfinder

A holiday waddle

African penguins – black-footed penguin – take a walk at the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise aquarium and amusement park complex in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo, Dec. 12.
Caption
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Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jake Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 13th, 2017 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We're working on a story about women in Zimbabwe and their battle against the poor example set by former President Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

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