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Most Recent School Shooting Shows Need To Reach Troubled Teens Online

By Claudia Rowe, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — “Thank you for being such a good friend,” read the text message on Juliana Borges’ phone. “I know you’re going to do well in life.”

Borges, then an 18-year-old senior at Lake Stevens High School, looked at the words, smiled and went on with her evening. She wondered at the silence when she typed back her appreciation but thought nothing of it until the next morning in Spanish class, when she learned that her friend had killed himself that night.

Today, only three years later, their exchange likely would have taken place on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr — social media sites whose use has skyrocketed among teens and where messages are often open to the world, for all to see.

In the hours and days after five students at Marysville-Pilchuck High School were shot by a friend, who then turned the gun on himself, updates from teens flooded Twitter — everything from rumors to news tidbits to outpourings of emotion.

The shooter’s Twitter feed, too, was viewable, and it displayed a simmering angst in 15-year-old Jaylen Fryberg that went back months, filled with anger and vows of retribution — despite the fact that, in person, he was popular enough to be crowned homecoming prince of the freshman class.

And within a day of the assault, victim Shaylee Chuckulnaskit, 14, had more than 3,000 people following her Twitter account, even as she lay in a hospital, fighting for her life. She died from her injuries on Friday.

The surging popularity of social media among teens has not been lost on public health advocates, who are now working with Facebook to reach students in trouble. They say many young people are far more comfortable facelessly typing their pain on a keyboard and hitting “send” than walking into a counselor’s office to ask for help directly.

Fryberg’s tweet on June 20 could be a prime example: “Might as well die now,” he wrote.

Two months later he added: “Some (expletive)’s gonna go down and I don’t think you’ll like it.”

To Lauren Davis, at the suicide-prevention group Forefront, which is housed at the University of Washington and has contracted with Facebook to improve outreach to kids in distress, the teen’s posts were textbook.

“When I read Jaylen’s Twitter feed, it broke my heart,” Davis said. “Just classic cries of a young person in distress. I would put them on a PowerPoint presentation.”

Facebook contacted Forefront last summer and has continued to meet with Davis and her colleagues, discussing ways that social media can better reach young people who may need help, and aid concerned friends.

One idea under consideration: Posting crisis lines on the news feed of certain users, in addition to creating an online library of suicide-prevention resources.

“It’s pretty exciting what they’re trying to do,” said Jennifer Stuber, executive director at Forefront.

“There are some tragic warning signs that appear on social media, and posts often have very serious implications, so concerned users need to know what to do.

“I think it’s essential to saving lives.”

Pew Internet Research Project reports that 80 percent of teens use social media regularly. More than 22 percent log on at least 10 times a day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“A large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet,” wrote Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe and Kathleen Clarke-Pearson in a 2011 report. “Parents often lack a basic understanding that kids’ online lives are an extension of their offline lives.”

For that reason, sites like Facebook and Twitter have emerged as the new meeting place for reaching teens — the modern-day community center.

“Social media provides a huge opportunity to help, exactly because it isn’t behind closed doors,” said Kaitlin Lounsbury, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire who studies young people’s habits online.

Many messages laden with drama are only that. But Forefront’s Davis believes it’s better, always, to err on the side of over concern.

“Take every threat seriously, every time,” she said. “There’s a reason, a very pointed reason, why they’re putting that out to the world.”

Presently, Facebook relies on customers to report troubling content posted by others — for a company with 1.3 billion users, it would be difficult to monitor messages any other way.

When notice is received of potential danger, a team of analysts evaluates the wording of a post and, if deemed serious, sends a message offering help, which pops up the next time that person logs on.

Tumblr is more proactive. Search on a word like “depression” or “suicide” and a message immediately appears: “Everything ok? If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, self harm, or suicidal thoughts, please visit our counseling & prevention resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.”

Twitter, like Facebook, relies on its individual users to report postings that cause concern.

Neither company would make anyone available to speak on the record about their policies, saying only that the “sensitive nature” of the topic demanded that they “tread lightly.”

Federal communications law shields social media companies from responsibility for almost anything posted on their sites. Child pornography is an important exception.

But other than mandated reporters, like teachers, the law generally does not require that anyone act as a good Samaritan.

“In many jurisdictions you could literally walk past a drowning person, do nothing and not be liable,” said Ryan Calo, a UW professor specializing in Internet law.

He says that Facebook and Twitter are making efforts far beyond what they must do.

“They have hundreds of people looking at posts, around the clock, and are taking pretty robust steps to reach out,” he said. “I think this is something that they actually do pretty well.”

While a pixelated nudge from an online behemoth might sound hopelessly superficial, those who work in suicide prevention say any gesture can make a difference.

With that in mind, Borges, the Lake Stevens student who is now a UW senior majoring in public health, had an idea: What if she and other college students could go — in person — to teach high school kids how to recognize online messages that might mean a friend is in trouble, and train them to offer help.

“It was really quite an innovative idea,” said Davis, at Forefront, who has been working with Borges’ 3-year-old group, Huskies for Suicide Prevention and Awareness.

Later this month, the students expect to visit Seattle’s Roosevelt High. After that, Nathan Hale. A counselor from Shoreline has also extended an invitation.

As for the notion that flagging your friends might feel overly intrusive, Borges said the potential benefits outweigh the risk.

“Sure, a friend might get mad, but you are potentially saving their life and that is more important.”

AFP Photo/David Ryder

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The 5 Closest Midterm Races

Photo  via Ron Cogswell via Flickr.com

Photo: Ron Cogswell via Flickr

The midterm elections are just days away, and polls show an unusual number of deadlocked senatorial and gubernatorial races across the country. Real Clear Politics lists 9 Senate and 11 gubernatorial races as “tossups.”

Here are five of the closest elections in the country as we near Election Day:

Georgia: Senate

Photo via Hyosub/Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MC

Photo: Hyosub/Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT

The Real Clear Politics poll average for Georgia’s Senate race shows David Perdue (R) and Michelle Nunn (D) tied exactly at 45.4 percent, with Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford at 3.8 percent.

This average takes into account contradictory polls from YouGov, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Insider Advantage, among others. In all the polls, the results fall within the margin of error, so RCP‘s average is a good indicator of just how close the race is.

If no candidate tops 50 percent on Election Day, the top two finishers will advance to a January 6 runoff.

North Carolina: Senate

Photo via Harry Lynch/News & Observer/MCT

Photo: Harry Lynch/News & Observer/MCT

In North Carolina, the race between incumbent Senator Kay Hagan (D) and challenger Thom Tillis (R) is close as they head into the last week of campaigning. The latest High Point/SurveyUSA poll has both candidates locked in at 44 percent, with Libertarian Sean Haugh at 5 percent.

The RCP average for North Carolina has Hagan up by 1.2 percent.


Kansas: Senate

Photo via Screenshot: Orman for Senate/YouTube

Screenshot: Orman for Senate/YouTube

As the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion reports, Independent Greg Orman and Republican incumbent Pat Roberts are in a fierce battle for the U.S. Senate in Kansas.

The RCP average has Orman up by just 0.6 percent. The Marist poll explains that although Roberts is “still unpopular,” as the race developed, “his favorable rating has improved.”

Florida: Governor

Charlie Crist (D). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 Photo of Charlie Crist via Wikimedia Commons

In Florida, incumbent governor Rick Scott (R) is a mere percentage point ahead of challenger Charlie Crist (D) in the latest CBS News/New York Times/YouGov Battleground Tracker. Crist was elected governor of Florida in 2006 as a Republican. He ran for Senate and lost in 2010, and became a Democrat in 2012.

The RCP average has Crist up by just 0.5 percent.


Wisconsin: Governor

Scott Walker. Photo via Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

In the Wisconsin gubernatorial race, Scott Walker (R) started out narrowly ahead of Mary Burke (D) back in early 2013. Burke has steadily narrowed the gap, though, and now less than 1 point separates the candidates, according to the RCP average.

President Obama is slated to join Burke in Milwaukee on Tuesday to assist in some final campaigning.

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Chris Christie And His Control Of Voting Regulations

Chris Christie appeared before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on Tuesday, and emphasized his eagerness to keep Republican governors in power before the 2016 presidential election. Specifically, he stressed the importance of letting Republicans control voting regulations.

“Would you rather have Rick Scott in Florida overseeing the voting mechanism, or Charlie Crist? Would you rather have Scott Walker in Wisconsin overseeing the voting mechanism, or would you rather have Mary Burke? Who would you rather have in Ohio, John Kasich or Ed FitzGerald?” Christie rhetorically asked.

In the past four years, Republicans have waged a highly partisan battle over voting rights. The Brennan Center for Justice tracks how conservative politicians began “passing laws and executive actions that would make it harder for many citizens to vote.” This trend began after the 2010 midterm elections brought new state legislative majorities, which “pushed a wave of laws cracking down on voting,” according to Wendy R. Weiser, the center’s director.

As the map below illustrates, a number of states moved forward with controversial voting changes in 2013, after the Supreme Court invalidated section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This effectively made it possible for nine states, mostly in the South, to adjust their election laws without prior federal approval.

The map shows the 21 states which will have new voting restrictions in place for November’s elections. Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the governors of which Christie specifically name-checked — are among the states with restrictive new laws.

Map from the Brennan Center for Justice

Map: Brennan Center for Justice

An October report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that voter identification laws, one of the most common restrictions, affected people aged 18 to 23 more than those from 44 to 53. The drop in voter turnout was also more pronounced among blacks than other ethnicities, and was greater among newly registered voters than those registered at least 20 years. Each of these constituencies is disproportionately likely to support Democratic candidates.

Along with stricter voter identification requirements, Governor Christie is also in favor of restricting early voting.

As Christie was initiating his own re-election bid last May, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed in-person early voting in New Jersey during the two weeks before elections. Christie claimed that the costs incurred would have been too great.

He has also gone on the record to vehemently oppose same-day registration for voting. In an August visit to Illinois, Christie referred to same-day voting as part of Democrats’ attempts to use “every trick in the book” to help their candidates win.

In his speech on Tuesday, Christie stressed that the party affiliation of governors will be especially significant for the 2016 presidential race.

“If you don’t really care what happens in these states, you’re going to care about who is running the state in November of 2016, what kind of political apparatus they’ve set up and what kind of governmental apparatus they’ve set up to ensure a full and fair election in 2016,” he said.

Christie points to the three gubernatorial candidates of Crist, Burke, and FitzGerald as cautionary tales of what will happen if Democrats take over the statehouses in question. All three of these candidates have campaigned on the importance of protecting voting rights.

AFP Photo/Eric Thayer

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5 Things Politicians Think They Know About Ebola

Ebola

AFP Photo/Inaki Gomez

Three weeks ago, Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. He died in Dallas, TX on October 8 and shortly after his death, two of the nurses who treated him were diagnosed with the virus. This series of events brought the issue of Ebola close to home for Americans, and sparked a strong reaction from U.S. media sources and politicians — regardless of how well they knew the subject.

Whether they were alarmists, whipping up public fear, or using the occasion for their own political advantage, here are five of the noteworthy assertions politicians made about Ebola:


Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)

Rand Paul 427x321

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Rand Paul thinks that the government has not been taking the Ebola virus seriously enough, so he is here to scare the living daylights out of you.

In a CNN interview, Paul explained his theory that “if someone has Ebola at a cocktail party, they’re contagious and you can catch it from them.”

Although this new information flies in the face of the facts that the Centers for Disease Control has distributed (the disease is spread only though direct contact with bodily fluids), Paul would like you to believe him: After all, he’s a (self-certified) doctor. Time to cancel your cocktail parties, folks.


Scott Brown (R-NH)

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Scott Brown knows the magic cure for Ebola. And it is Mitt Romney.

Brown appeared on Fox News radio last week, and told an anxious nation that if Mitt Romney had been elected president instead of Obama, we would not be dealing with an Ebola outbreak.

According to the former senator, Romney “was right on Russia, he was right on Obamacare, he was right on the economy. And I guarantee you [that if he were president] we would not be worrying about Ebola right now.”


Governor Nathan Deal (R-GA)

Photo courtesy of the city of Marietta.

Photo courtesy of the city of Marietta

Nathan Deal revealed some surprising news that you might not have known about the Ebola virus.

Speaking to The Marietta Daily Journal a week ago, Deal suggested that the disease can be treated simply by washing your hands.

“The most comforting thing that I heard from [Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health] was that water kills the Ebola virus. I’ve never heard that before. I thought it was something that was so contagious there wasn’t much you could do to prevent it or anything else, so her advice was ‘wash your hands.'” Why bother with hazmat suits when you can arm yourself with a standard garden hose instead?

After hearing that water can kill the virus, Governor Deal felt much better about Georgia’s readiness for an Ebola outbreak. “We are in pretty good shape here in Georgia,” he said. Stock up on your bottled water, Georgians.


Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX)

Photo via Wikicommons

Photo via WikiCommons

Representative Blake Farenthold ever so subtly invoked the politics of fear in his statement about Ebola, when he publicly stated that “every outbreak novel or zombie movie you see starts with somebody from the government sitting in front of a panel like this saying there is nothing to worry about.”

NBC’s White House Correspondent Kristen Welker blasted Farenthold for his I Am Legend vision of reality, noting that “some Republican candidates eyeing wins in the upcoming midterm elections are stoking public fears.”


Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)

Photo Via Wikicommons

Photo via WikiCommons

Marsha Blackburn, a U.S. representative from Tennessee, knows that we need to close the border to contain Ebola. She’s just confused about which one.

In a House of Representatives panel on the government’s efforts to keep the contagious virus stateside, Blackburn misunderstood the statement made by CDC Director Thomas Frieden about flight restrictions between the U.S. and African countries.

She interpreted his response, which referred to the porous borders of Liberia, to mean that we need to “worry about having an unsecure southern and northern border. Is that a big part of this [Ebola] problem?”

No, congresswoman, it is not.

AFP Photo/Inaki Gomez

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Paul Ryan Doesn’t Believe In Climate Science

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has taken the familiar Republican chorus of “I am not a scientist” one step further, by stating that he does not believe that science can know whether or not human activity is to blame climate change.

During an hour-long debate against Democratic challenger Rob Zerban on Monday, the moderator posed to both candidates the question of whether human pollution impacts climate change. The Associated Press reports that Ryan responded, “I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think science does, either.”

But science does know. A survey that collected 11,944 peer-reviewed papers from 1991-2011 on the topics “global climate change” or “global warming” found that 97 percent expressed the position that humans are impacting global warming. Similarly, NASA has concluded that 97 percent of scientists agree that human activity is very likely causing climate change.

Ryan has doubted climate science before. In July, speaking at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington, the congressman said, “Climate change occurs no matter what.” At that breakfast, Ryan also claimed that EPA efforts to reduce emissions from power plants were “outside of the confines of the law,” and “an excuse to grow government, raise taxes, and slow down economic growth.”

At the debate on Monday, Ryan again stood behind his opposition to implementing plans to fight climate change. Ryan’s stance that “the benefits do not outweigh the costs” (of proposals that would limit climate change) stood in stark contrast to Zerban’s point that “this is an opportunity to invest a dime to save a dollar.”

Ryan is heavily favored to win re-election to his seat in GOP-leaning southern Wisconsin.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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Gardner Can’t Make Up His Mind On Climate Change

Where does Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) stand on climate change? It depends on when you ask him.

In Tuesday’s Senate debate against incumbent Democrat Mark Udall, Gardner could not bring himself to declare whether or not humans are contributing to climate change. During a “yes or no questions” section of the debate, moderator Chuck Plunkett of the Denver Post asked, “Do you believe humans are contributing significantly to climate change?”

Gardner immediately launched into an explanation, ignoring the instructions to answer in one word. “Well I’ve said all along–” Gardner began. Even with further prompting from Plunkett, Gardner refused to answer with a “yes” or “no”, explaining, “Look, this is an important issue and I don’t think you can say yes or no.”

After flailing for a decisive answer on the matter, Gardner’s final response was, “I believe the climate is changing. I disagree to the extent that it’s been in the news that man is causing it.”

But just one day before, Gardner had stated that “there is no doubt that pollution contributes to the climate changing around us.” He then diverted attention away from his own views on climate change by attacking Udall.

“What I refuse to do is support a climate tax bill like Waxman/Markey put in place… We hear people talk about putting a price on carbon, but they won’t talk about how much that price of carbon is. Let’s just have an answer: What is the price? Is it $5 a month, is $10 a month, is it $20 a month? Senator Udall, am I not going high enough?” Gardner said.

The Waxman/Markey bill to which Gardner refers is from 2009, when Coloradan Elizabeth Markey voted in favor of energy legislation that would have reduced carbon emissions. Back then, Gardner said he did not believe humans were causing climate change the way that the media was portraying it. “I think the climate is changing, but I don’t believe humans are causing that change to the extent that’s been in the news,” Gardner explained, as quoted by Colorado’s 9news.

This year, Gardner was one of 24 Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who voted down an amendment that would have affirmed the existence of climate change.

The debate on Tuesday highlighted Gardner’s indecision about how to best handle the issue. Locked in an especially tight race, Gardner could use any moderate votes he might be able to glean with a lenient view on climate change. Instead, he waffled and argued with Plunkett, pleading, “I don’t think we should shortchange serious issues with yes or no answers without being able to talk about them now.”

Plunkett responded that “these yes or no questions are meant to be answered yes or no, because they should come from a core belief that you would hold.”

When Plunkett asked Senator Udall the same question, Mark Udall barely paused before answering with a  simple “Yes.”

The Huffington Post Pollster aggregate model shows Gardner and Udall virtually tied at 46 percent.

Screenshot: Cory Gardner for Senate/YouTube

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Death Of A Wedge Issue: 4 Ways GOP Presidential Hopefuls Reacted To Same-Sex Marriage Decision

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

The Supreme Court’s decision to allow rulings that recognize the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry in five states was a massive step forward in the drive for marriage equality. But it could also scramble the GOP’s political calculus in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

In the past, Republican candidates have almost uniformly spoken out against same-sex marriage. So you might expect the party’s 2016 contenders to voice their dissatisfaction and grumble loudly in the wake of Monday’s news. However, many have instead chosen to bite their tongues.

Here are the four ways the GOP’s 2016 hopefuls have responded to the big news:

Silence

Chris Christie. Photo via Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Many Republicans appear reluctant to engage in a dialogue about what was once a top wedge issue. “We don’t have to agree with the decision, but as long as we’re not against it we should be okay,” an anonymous aide to a 2016 presidential contender told TIME. “The base, meanwhile, will focus its anger on the Court, and not on us.”

In other words, candidates would rather avoid the issue entirely than choose between being on the wrong side of a losing battle and alienating their Republican base.

Chris Christie, for instance, declined to comment on the subject at a campaign event in Connecticut. “I haven’t had a chance to read it,” Christie insisted. “All I saw was the headline when I was coming up here, so I don’t give comments based on headlines.”


Acceptance

Scott Walker. Photo via Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Some potential candidates seem to have thrown in the towel. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, for example, is a contender who embraced surrender. As reported by TIME, Walker acknowledged, “It’s over in Wisconsin. The federal courts have ruled that this decision by this court of appeals decision is the law of the land and we will be upholding it.”

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, also a likely candidate, echoed Walker’s sentiments that the matter is out of his hands. “The law is certainly in the Court’s court,” Jindal explained.


Defiance

Ted Cruz. Photo via Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) isn’t ready to slink away quietly. On Monday, Cruz declared that he would introduce an amendment to rein in the Supreme Court’s power over marriage laws.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to let rulings by lower-court judges stand that redefine marriage is both tragic and indefensible,” Cruz stated. He also called the inactivity by the Supreme Court “judicial activism at its worst.”


Denial

Mike Huckabee. Photo via Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee went one step further than Cruz in his opposition to the Court’s ruling. On Monday, Huckabee clung to the idea that Republican governors can still prevent same-sex marriages.

“It is shocking that many elected officials, attorneys and judges think that a court ruling is the ‘final word,'” Huckabee said. “It most certainly is not. The courts are one branch of government, and equal to the other two, but not superior to either and certainly not to both. Even if the other two branches agree with the ruling, the people’s representatives have to pass enabling legislation to authorize same-sex marriage, and the president (or governor in the case of the state) has to sign it. Otherwise, it remains the court’s opinion. It is NOT the ‘law of the land’ as is often heralded.”

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Study: California Drought Linked To Climate Change

On Tuesday, Stanford scientists released a study showing that the drought devastating California is indirectly caused by manmade climate change.

In the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Professor Noah Diffenbaugh, graduate student Daniel Swain, and their colleagues used computer simulations and statistical analyses to examine the persistent region of high atmospheric pressure over the Pacific Ocean. The study was able to determine that this region, or “ridge,” as scientists have begun referring to it, was more likely to form in the presence of modern greenhouse gas concentrations than ever before.

Diffenbaugh and Swain have studied the ridge — or, as Swain calls it, the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” (Triple R) — over the course of the long-lasting drought. The Triple R is a large, hard bubble of high-pressure air that has situated itself over the Pacific Ocean. Its presence has disrupted the usual wind patterns in the area.

The Triple R subsided for a couple of months during summer 2013, but it was back by the fall. It remained in place through most of winter 2013, which is usually California’s wet season.

By January 2014, the Triple R was a force to be reckoned with. It spread from the subtropical Pacific near Hawaii to the coast of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, and effectively prevented California from receiving its usual complement of winter storms and precipitation. The snow and rain that would have fallen on the West Coast was instead redirected toward Alaska and the Arctic Circle.

There was no doubt in the scientists’ minds that the Triple R was affecting California’s drought. The question was whether manmade climate change influenced the creation of such a resilient ridge. In their study, Diffenbaugh and his colleagues focused on the probability of extreme ridging events. The findings were published as part of the collection “Explaining Extreme Events of 2013 from a Climate Perspective.”

The researchers found that the immensity and constancy of the Triple R in 2013 were unmatched by any previous event. As the National Science Foundation reports, the group “found that the extreme heights of the Triple R in 2013 were at least three times as likely to occur in the present climate as in the preindustrial climate.”

The scientists acknowledge that a number of factors can cause high-pressure regions and ridges, but the study wasn’t looking at the ultimate cause, just at the likelihood.

While the projections made by the climate models are experimental, they are improving in accuracy. NPR‘s science blog KQED Science quoted Bill Patzert, an expert from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, on his view of climate models: “They’re getting better and better, but at this point, you definitely don’t want to invest your 401(k) in any of these climate models because many of them are in their infancy.”

Patzer warns against expecting climate models to be 100 percent accurate, but he also states that “global warming is the real deal. It’s serious, it’s irreversible and it’s going to be punishing as we look out into the 21st century.”

Let’s hope that a few more than just 3 percent of Republicans in Congress hear his plea to take global warming seriously.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Unemployment Insurance Is Not Reaching Those Who Need It

The percentage of unemployed workers receiving unemployment insurance (UI) has reached its lowest point since 1987, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

During the Great Recession, which technically ended in 2009, unemployment spiked. As the EPI reports, “the UI recipiency rate reached about two-thirds of all unemployed workers” during this time.

The number of people receiving UI then fell precipitously in 2012 and 2013, because of unusually long-lasting unemployment bouts and cutbacks to UI funding made at both the state and federal levels. Throughout most of the economic downturn, Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) made it possible for the unemployed to receive additional benefits. UI usually lasts for 26 weeks, but the EUC program allowed unemployed workers to collect UI for at least seven additional weeks (sometimes longer, depending on the state). However, this program ended in December 2013, after Congress refused to pass legislation to extend it.

Many conservatives believed that ending long-term unemployment insurance would benefit the unemployed.

“When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy,” Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) claimed in December.

The evidence strongly disputes this claim.

Republicans often cite recent job growth as proof that their opposition to extending long-term unemployment benefits is correct. However, experts believe that job growth has prevailed in spite of — not because of — ending the benefits. The number of long-term unemployed dropped this summer, but there are still 3.1 million Americans who do not qualify for UI looking for work. That number is over 30 percent of the nation’s total unemployment rate. To make matters worse, the recent drop in the number of long-term unemployed can be explained by the surrender of those unemployed workers.

Alan Krueger, a Princeton professor and former member of the Obama administration, conducted a study that found that between 2008 and 2013, only 22 percent of long-term unemployed workers had found a full-time job, while 35 percent had stopped looking for work. This resignation is understandable considering that, as of July, job openings were available for less than half of all job seekers.

Data Viz LTUE  KruegerCramerCho  01

Photo via Brookings.edu

The historically small share of jobless people receiving UI means that many of those who cannot find work (or have given up doing so) are receiving no aid.

This could be harming the economy. The Congressional Budget Office has long said that extended benefits boost the economy by increasing consumer spending. The UI system also helps sustain consumer demand through periods of economic downturn by providing money for families to spend.

Photo via Flickr

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Here’s What You Need To Know For National Voter Registration Day

Tuesday is National Voter Registration Day, a concerted effort by volunteers, organizations, celebrities, and leaders across the country to register Americans to vote before important upcoming elections. This year’s midterm elections, which will be held on November 4, will decide 417 members of the U.S. Congress, 36 governors, and 46 state legislatures.

If you need to register, you should check out your state’s elections website. To find the correct website, go to rockthevote.com, click on your state, and you will be redirected to the state elections page. In order to vote in any state you must be a citizen of the United States, 18 or older, and, at the very least, a resident of that state on the day of the election. By federal law, a state cannot require you to be a resident for longer than 30 days to be eligible to vote.

You can print out registration forms and mail them in, but if you are registering for the first time with a mail-in form, most states will require that you show some kind of federal or state-issued I.D. with your address on it, or a current utility bill, bank statement, or paycheck when you vote. But states’ requirements for documentation do vary, so use the state election website to find the specific requirements.

Some states, like Iowa and Colorado, have switched to online registration, but most still have a paper-based process.

Apart from using the state website to download registration forms to print out and mail in, you can also pick up the necessary forms at your local secretary of state’s office.

The forms must be dropped off or postmarked by the registration deadline. You can also register at your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, provided you meet the deadline and are an eligible voter per other state requirements.

Another way to register is by a third-party site or registration drive. Third-party sites like Turbovote.org, NationalVoterRegistrationDay.org, Rockthevote.com, and Vote411.org help facilitate and streamline the process instead of having to work through your state’s own election page.

In almost all states, you can register to vote by mail using the National Mail Voter Registration Form; North Dakota, Wyoming, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands do not accept this form, while New Hampshire accepts it only as a request for an absentee voter mail-in registration form.

You can also use the National Mail Voter Registration Form to update your registration if you changed your name or address, or want to register with a political party.

In order to be eligible to vote, you must submit your registration form by your state’s deadline. You can find a complete list of registration deadlines by state on USA.gov‘s voting page.

If you happen to live in North Dakota, you don’t have to register at all. North Dakota is the only state that doesn’t require its residents to register in order to vote.

Photo via Neighborhood Centers Inc. via Flickr

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What To Expect From the U.N. Climate Summit

United Nations Photo via Flickr

United Nations Photo via Flickr

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people marched to demand action on the pressing global issue of climate change. Now, it’s up to the United Nations to heed their call.

The 2014 United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York has gathered leaders from all sectors of society to bring new climate initiatives and ideas to the international community, in preparation for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris. The objective for the 2015 conference is a binding, universal agreement on climate change from all nations.

But that doesn’t mean that no progress can be made right now. Here are five areas in which the 2014 summit could achieve tangible results:

Cities

Atlantic City

Bob Jagendorf via Flickr

The Mayors Compact will group city government officials together to focus specifically on and provide reports about city emission reduction targets and strategies. Mayors from Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia have already pledged their allegiance to such an initiative. As cities are responsible for about 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Mayors Compact will allow officials to target an especially significant area of concern.

Forests

Using drones as a hunting aid has sparked a nuanced electronics-vs.-ethics debate.

Brian Peterson via Flickr

Forests and the natural CO2 absorption they offer are crucial in the fight against increasing greenhouse gases. As deforestation has plagued our woodlands, CO2 levels have increased exponentially.

The New York Declaration on Forests will promote the restoration of forests, and it is hoped that many other countries, companies, and other societal organizations present at the UN Climate Summit will sign on. The declaration will be open for signing at the Summit and up until the 2015 Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Resilience

Typhoon

AFP Photo/Charism Sayat

Climate change is increasing the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters such as drought, typhoon, sea-level rise, or wildfire. These hazards can destroy homes, businesses, state institutions, and financial systems. The UN Climate Summit will strive to enhance our world’s capacity to be resilient to climate change and the natural disasters associated with it.

The Integrating Disaster Risk and Resilience into the Financial System initiative would combine major financial, regulatory, accounting, and scientific institutions into an alliance to recognize and evaluate the costs of disaster risk and build investments into their portfolios to account for those risks. The alliance would also integrate incentives into resilience-building programs.

Finances

Agustín Ruiz via Flickr

Agustín Ruiz via Flickr

The Summit will attempt to bring policymakers and companies into a realistic discussion about pricing carbon. Taxing carbon could help direct the global financial flow away from fossil fuels and advance the growing global market for energy efficiency and clean energy.

Transportation

new jersey train

Michael Hicks via Flickr

The International Union of Railways (UIC) Low-Carbon Sustainable Rail Transport Challenge targets the CO2 emissions from trains. It sets a goal of a 75 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from the rail sector by 2050, along with doubling the rail sector’s share of passenger transportation. Partnerships between transportation authorities will be necessary to achieve this goal.

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More Data Rebut GOP Attacks On Minimum Wage

Raising the minimum wage is one of many issues that will likely become a casualty of Congress’s inaction before the midterm elections. The Minimum Wage Fairness Act — which was introduced in November 2013 by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), and would raise the minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25 per hour to $10.10 over the course of a two-year period — is strongly supported by President Obama, the Democratic caucus, and a broad public majority. But it has almost no chance of becoming law anytime soon.

Republicans and some business groups argue that raising the minimum wage would reduce job growth by increasing the cost of hiring. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has spoken out against minimum-wage increases, saying that, “Kentucky’s got an unemployment rate above the national average. We’ve got a depression in the coal fields. Obamacare is destroying jobs right and left. We have a record number of part-time employees in our country as a result of Obamacare. The last thing, it seems to me, we ought to be doing is destroying jobs.”

McConnell’s argument seemed strengthened by a report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) earlier this year, which found that $10.10 per hour minimum wage could lead to the loss of 500,000 jobs nationwide. However, the statistics cited by many Republicans and anti-minimum-wagers do not tell the whole story. The 500,000 figure is a rough projection, and does not account for the millions who would directly benefit from a higher minimum wage.

More than 600 economists also disagree with McConnell, and signed an open letter asserting that most evidence backs the claim “that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market.”

According to new data released Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor, the economists are on the right track. As USA Today notes, the 13 states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) that raised their minimum wage at the beginning of the year are not losing jobs. Instead, most are adding jobs faster than those that didn’t increase the minimum wage. Of those 13 states, only Vermont has not seen growth—its employment rate has been flat.

While the report only examines six months of data, it presents a more optimistic view of minimum-wage increases than the grim picture Republicans are painting. As John Schmitt, a senior economist at the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, put it, “It raises serious questions about the claims that a raise in the minimum wage is a jobs disaster.” He concedes that the job data is not definitive, but believes it is “probably a reasonable first cut at what’s going on.”

It’s true that the Labor Department’s numbers do not establish a cause-and-effect relationship, and there are numerous reasons that hiring could accelerate in any particular state. But the findings offer hope that the main argument against the bill can be refuted.

Photo: pbarcas via Flickr

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Scott Walker Wants To Revisit Drug Tests For Welfare

Governor Scott Walker is the latest Republican to suggest mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients. As part of his re-election campaign, the Wisconsin governor put forth a 62-page platform, which includes a plan to “require a drug test for those requesting unemployment and able-bodied, working-age adults requesting Food Stamps from the state.”

This is not a revolutionary concept. Walker’s proposal to make underprivileged Americans pee in cups in order to access unemployment insurance and food stamps follows a long list of similar bills from Republican government officials. Back in 2003, Michigan became the first state to strike down a law on blanket-testing applicants to welfare programs. At the time, an appeals court upheld U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts’ ruling that the program “would be dangerously at odds with the tenets of our democracy,” and ruled that welfare recipients could only be drug tested where there is a reasonable suspicion that the recipient is using drugs.

The ruling in Michigan was not enough to dissuade other Republicans from pushing similar proposals in their own states. In 2009, Arizona passed a drug-testing requirement. Since 2011, nine more states have passed similar laws. The New York Times notes that at least 29 states debated bills that required testing welfare recipients in 2013. Only two of those bills passed.

In 2011, Florida mandated that welfare applicants would have to undergo mandatory drug testing. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who campaigned on the issue, argued that “any illegal drug use in a family is harmful and even abusive to a child. We should have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal drug use in families — especially those families who struggle to make ends meet and need welfare assistance to provide for their children.”

The United States District Court in Orlando did not side with Scott, and instead found the testing requirement to be a violation of protection against unreasonable searches. Judge Mary Scriven ruled that the court “finds there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied.”

Drug testing welfare applicants is not only legally questionable, but also unproductive. The ACLU cites data showing that Florida tested 4,086 welfare applicants during the brief period that it was permitted to do so. Only 108 of them failed. This means that 2.6 percent of applicants tested positive for illegal drugs, which is more than three times lower than the government estimate that 8.13 percent of all Floridians age 12 and up use illegal drugs.

Still, Scott did not abandon his mission. An ACLU public records investigation discovered that Scott spent $381,654 in taxpayer dollars to appeal the unfavorable rulings.

Governor Walker may be on track to follow in Scott’s footsteps. After announcing his plan to start testing welfare applicants, Walker assured the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was prepared to battle any federal court cases that might arise.

“We believe that there will potentially be a fight with the federal government and in court…. Our goal here is not to make it harder to get government assistance; it’s to make it easier to get a job,” Walker told the newspaper.

The Journal Sentinel reported that a spokesman for Mary Burke, Walker’s Democratic opponent, “said Walker’s plan was more about the Nov. 4 election that will decide who has the job of leading the state.”

There may be some wisdom to Walker’s plan, if it’s considered purely as a campaign tactic. YouGov and Huffington Post national polls from 2013 found that 64 percent of Americans favor requiring welfare recipients to submit to random drug testing, while 18 percent oppose it. However, an even stronger majority said they were in favor of random drug testing for members of Congress, with 78 percent in favor, and 62 percent saying they “strongly” favor drug testing for congressmembers. Only 51 percent of respondents said they would “strongly” favor welfare recipient drug testing.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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2013 Sees Record High Of Greenhouse Gas Concentrations

Greenhouse gas concentrations have been on the rise since they were first studied and recorded in 1958. So it comes as no surprise that the most recent measurements from the World Meteorological Organization show another record high for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

According to the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin released by the World Meteorological Organization Tuesday, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through 2013 reached 396 parts per million (ppm). This is almost 3 ppm higher than the concentration recorded in 2012.

The rise from 2012 to 2013 represents the largest annual increase since 1984, and the largest increase of the greenhouse gases studied (which also included methane and nitrous oxide). Carbon dioxide is widely acknowledged as one of the most important greenhouse gases to watch, as it can linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and traps heat, which leads to rising temperatures.

The following graph from the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows the consistent, upward trend of carbon dioxide concentrations during the past 30 years.

via Greenhouse Gas Bulletin

via Greenhouse Gas Bulletin

Carbon dioxide’s long-lasting nature means that the amount of CO2 trapped in the atmosphere will only continue to grow. The graph below shows the spike in 2013, with the rate of growth around 3 ppm. The only other spike as high occurred in 1998, which The Carbon Brief explains was the result of an El Niño event.

from greenhouse gas bulletin

via Greenhouse Gas Bulletin

Natural events, such as El Niño, can greatly influence levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. In the natural cycle of carbon dioxide, humans and animals breathe out CO2, plants absorb it, and oceans and soils absorb and emit CO2. Human activities have significantly altered that cycle. Burning oil, gas, and coal releases much more carbon dioxide than can be absorbed by plants, oceans, and soils. The findings from the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin indicate that increases in greenhouse gas emissions show no sign of subsiding.

Without aggressive action to limit CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, the uptick in concentrations will result in increased temperatures on Earth. The effects of higher temperatures are already being felt: California’s current drought has been deemed a state of emergency by Governor Jerry Brown, with no end in sight.

AFP Photo/Patrick Stollarz

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A Megadrought Could Be Coming Without Climate Action

A new study published in the Journal of Climate warns that decade-long droughts are likely to occur in the U.S. Southwest within the coming century if no action is taken against climate change.

Megadroughts (or droughts that last for two decades or longer) are cyclical, and long periods of drought have plagued the Southwest in the past (such as the Dust Bowl). However, National Drought Mitigation Center climatologist Mark Svoboda points out, “We are simply much more vulnerable today than at any time in the past. People can’t just pick up and leave to the degree they did in the past.”

According to the study, “the risk of a decade-scale megadrought in the coming century [in the SW] is at least 80 percent, and may be higher than 90 percent in certain areas.”

As this map from USA Today shows, some of the most densely populated regions of the country are at very high risk of extended, civilization-threatening droughts.

Drought Map

Prolonged drought is no longer a far-off, abstract concept. The state of California is facing one of the most severe droughts on record. Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought State of Emergency in January, and as of August 28, 100 percent of the state of California was considered to be in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. More than 58 percent is in “exceptional” drought, the highest level of intensity listed. Californians are in the midst of the worst three years for precipitation in 119 years of records. Reservoir storage levels have continued to drop, prompting comedian Conan O’Brien to launch a series of PSA videos urging Californians to conserve water.

O’Brien is right to be concerned about his state’s drought, but the recent study shows that California’s current situation is far from the worst of what we can expect to see if action against climate change is not taken.

Drought Map 2

This graphic from ThinkProgress reveals that for most parts of the Southwest, there is an over 40 percent chance of a megadrought lasting 35 years or longer during this century, if we do nothing (Figure i). As the scale shows, the percentages drop significantly in the other two scenarios (Figures g and h), where aggressive action is taken against carbon emissions. In Figure g, the nation and the world keep carbon pollution levels to 450 parts per million of total greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, and in Figure h the levels are limited to 500 parts per million.

The study goes on to note that our action or inaction is more than just a national concern. After extending their analysis of megadrought risk, scientists found that “risks throughout the subtropics appear as high or higher than estimates for the U.S. Southwest.”

The prolonged drought that California has faced these past months would be a mere drop in the bucket, compared to a megadrought that lasts multiple decades. The most alarming aspect of the study is that scientists based their evaluations on conservative precipitation projections and did not take any possible increases in temperatures into account. These increases in temperature would make the risk of megadrought within the next century 100 percent, as ThinkProgress notes.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Will The 113th Congress Be The Least Productive In History?

Members of Congress returned to Capitol Hill after their August recess on Monday, and if they want to avoid being the least productive Congress in modern history, they have their work cut out for them. According to Govtrack.us, this Congress has enacted only 163 laws (including both bills and joint resolutions that have been enacted into law). That leaves it 121 laws behind the 112th Congress, which is currently the do-nothingest in modern congressional history.

Washington Post chart

As this chart from The Washington Post shows, it is common practice for as much as 50 percent of laws enacted by Congress to come in the last quarter of the session. But even taking Congress’ tendency to procrastinate into account, the 113th Congress will have to cover a lot of ground in the next few weeks if it wants to enact more laws than its predecessor. This is because of November’s elections: According to the Associated Press, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to adjourn the Senate by September 23 to allow members to campaign.

The most pressing issue is keeping the government funded. Legislators will need to come up with a short-term spending bill to fund the government through the end of 2014, and they will need to do so by September 30. With negotiations over the budget absorbing so much time and focus in the coming weeks, the question will be whether Congress can accomplish much else before being adjourned until after the elections.

If its track record is any indication, then the answer looks grim. While the number of laws that a Congress enacts is not the only way to judge its productivity, even small-government conservatives will find this dearth of legislation to be a problem, since it does take a law to repeal a law.

Even when Congress has been able to pass legislation, like The Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Veterans Access Choice and Accountability Act (which reformed the VA), it has sunk back into inefficiency by following it up with partisan bills that stand little chance of becoming law. On the day before the August recess, for example, the House passed bills authorizing a lawsuit against President Obama and curtailing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — neither of which the Democratic-controlled Senate will seriously consider.

If this Congress really wants to improve its productivity, its members will need to compromise and pass bills that are not solely designed to position themselves favorably for re-election.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

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