Thursday, January 23, 2020

Trump commits U.S. to more trees, maybe -- Jan. 23, 2020 column


Nobody would mistake President Donald Trump for a tree hugger.

He has dismissed climate change as a “hoax,” rolled back many Obama-era environmental and clean energy policies that reduce carbon emissions, and is withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

But as his impeachment trial was poised to begin in Washington Tuesday, Trump announced during a campaign-style speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the United States would join in the forum’s 1 Trillion Trees initiative. What?

The forum launched to connect, support and fund the international movement to plant 1 trillion trees around the globe in coming decades to fight climate change.

Billionaire entrepreneur Marc Benioff, founder of the software company Salesforce, and his wife Lynne are providing financial support for the digital platform. Benioff said his company also intends “to support and mobilize the conservation and restoration of 100 million trees over the next decade.”

Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will join drew applause from the global business and government leaders in Davos, but it’s unclear what happens next.  

“We will continue to show strong leadership in restoring, growing and better managing our trees and forests,” Trump said, but offered no specifics.

Although he described himself to reporters in Davos as “a very big believer in the environment,” Trump has proposed cuts in the U.S. Forest Service, opened public lands to drilling and mining, and pushed for new logging in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

In Davos, Trump downplayed climate fears saying, “This is not a time for pessimism; this is a time for optimism. . . this is a time for tremendous hope and joy and optimism and action.”

He also indirectly called out Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden who was in the audience. She urges all countries to heed the call by the United Nations environmental panel to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over a decade to avoid intense climate impact. That will require reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% between now and 2030.

But Trump said: "We must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse. They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers.” He also lambasted “radical socialists” who would ruin the U.S. economy with environmental regulations.

Forests remove carbon dioxide from the air and store the carbon in trees, vegetation, the forest floor and in the soil. This carbon removal, or sequestration, “makes the forest a type of carbon sink by absorbing more CO2 than is emitted. This absorption partially offsets the contribution of carbon to the atmosphere from carbon sources such as the burning of fossil fuels,” the Virginia Department of Forestry says on its website.

Some nations have acted. Ethiopia planted more than 350 million trees in 12 hours last July, setting a new world record. India had held the record for planting 66 million trees in 2017.

Trump’s comments in Davos reflect the shifting politics of climate in Congress. House Republicans who recognize they’re losing young voters concerned about climate issues, are developing an alternative to the Democrats’ Green New Deal, Axios reported this week. The Green New Deal would remake the economy to fight climate change. The GOP plan stops short of envisioning major changes in how we work and live.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, Republican of Arkansas, is drafting a Trillion Trees Act that will set a target for growing more trees “for the purpose of sequestering carbon,” according to a summary of the bill Axios viewed, but so far does not include an actual numerical target.

Who doesn’t like trees? Planting them makes people feel good, but that by itself won’t come close to solving the climate crisis. It’s estimated reforestation could provide only up to one-third of the climate solutions needed by 2030 to meet the 1.5 degree goal, the forum reported.

“Nature-based solutions will only be effective if undertaken in conjunction with other efforts to transform energy, heavy industry and the finance sectors,” the forum said.

We in the United States should plant trees as a first step, but we, the Trump administration and Congress will need to do more to fight climate change.

© Marsha Mercer 2020. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Make character a factor in 2020 vote -- Jan. 16, 2020 column


On the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, you’ll likely hear people quote from King’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character,” King declared at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. We aren’t there yet.

Today, King, who won the Nobel peace prize a year later and was assassinated in 1968, is revered for his leadership of the civil rights movement and his advocacy of nonviolence. He is an unalloyed American hero and a role model for children.

Role models are rare in public life, and, during the run-up to elections, character can become weaponized. In 2016, Hillary Clinton charged Donald Trump was morally unfit to be president, and he attacked her as “crooked Hillary.”

In 2020, “character is on the ballot,” Joe Biden said Tuesday at the Democratic presidential debate.

We may despair about the country’s direction, but character still counts. President Trump was impeached and faces a trial in the Senate starting Tuesday because integrity still matters.

The House voted last month along party lines to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, accusing him of attempting to force a foreign power to do his political dirty work, to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.

Trump used the powers of the presidency to benefit his own political campaign. He tried to pressure the president of Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens by withholding nearly $400 million in military aid and denying him a White House meeting. Trump released the aid only after news outlets reported on the scheme.

Trump and his Republican supporters claim he did nothing wrong and have repeatedly slammed impeachment as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”

Where people stand politically colors their view of impeachment, but nearly three in four Americans think Trump is not a good role model for children, a Quinnipiac University poll also reported last March. Almost all Democrats – 97% -- said he isn’t a good role model, and nearly 40% of Republicans agreed.

Telling the truth is a sign of character, but this is the president of “alternative facts.” As of Dec. 10, Trump had made more than 15,413 false or misleading claims since he took office, according to fact checkers at The Washington Post.

Democratic presidential candidates have generally avoided getting into the liar-calling business, until now. Elizabeth Warren claimed Bernie Sanders told her in a 2018 conversation a woman could not beat Trump. Asked about it in the last debate, Sanders denied he’d ever said such a thing. After the debate, a live mic onstage caught Warren telling Sanders twice, “I think you called me a liar on national TV.” She refused to shake his hand.

He replied, “You know, let’s not do it right now,” adding, “You called me a liar.”

What’s sad and mystifying is how Trump has normalized abnormal behavior. Many people no longer care if he tells the truth as long as he appoints conservative judges, cuts their taxes and unleashes business from regulations. If, as expected, the Republican-controlled Senate acquits Trump and leaves him in office, he will falsely claim he’s been exonerated, firing up his base for November.

But not all Republicans are sanguine. Sen. James Lankford, a conservative Republican of Oklahoma who directed the large Baptist youth camp there, looked for a role model candidate during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries – and Trump wasn’t, he said on “Face the Nation” last month. He wishes Trump “was more of a role model,” he said, explaining, “I don’t like the way he tweets, some of the things he says.”

But voters, not he, choose who he works with in Washington, Lankford said.

No candidate is perfect, of course, but we can make character decisive when we vote.

As Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1900 when he was running for vice president on the Republican ticket: “Alike for the nation and the individual, the one indispensable requisite is character.”

©2020 All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A new weapon in the war on robocalls -- Jan. 9, 2020 column


We’ve stopped answering the phone.

I’m not using the royal or editorial we. I mean we Americans.

The flood of robocalls, automatically dialed calls with recorded messages from telemarketers and scammers, has made us angry and afraid of our own phones.

About 70% of U.S. consumers won’t answer the phone if they don’t recognize a caller’s number, a survey by Consumer Reports found. I’m among that 70% and with the 62% who let most calls go to voicemail.

There’s good reason for not wanting to engage with unknown callers. One study estimated nearly half of all calls to mobile phones in 2019 were scam calls.

And yet, policing robocars is complicated. We rely on legitimate robocalls from the pharmacy that says our prescription is ready, from schools that close because of bad weather, from banks that issue fraud alerts, and companies notifying us of safety recalls, a House report said.

But “the same characteristics that make (legitimate) robocalls appealing to businesses also make them appealing to scammers. Those seeking to defraud consumers can do so efficiently and cost-effectively using robocalls maximizing their ill-gotten gains,” according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Americans received an astonishing 58.5 billion robocalls last year, or 178.3 calls per person affected, according to YouMail, a call blocking service. That was up from an estimated 48 billion robocalls in 2018, the service said.

The deluge of calls swamps even members of Congress. Maybe that’s why they finally did something.

Congress passed and President Trump signed Dec. 30 the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, the TRACED Act for short. 

In a rare moment of bipartisanship on one of the more acrimonious days ever, the House passed the bill 417 to 3, the same day the House Judiciary Committee opened its impeachment hearing of Trump. The few no votes were from libertarian-leaning members who fear giving the government too much power.

The Senate passed the bill on a voice vote Dec. 19, after voting 97 to 1 for its version in May. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, Democrats of Virginia, were cosponsors.

In a humorous video last month, Warner shows the frustration of frequent interruptions by robocalls while he’s trying to work.

“As a tech guy who founded the wireless company Nextel, I’m a big fan of cell phones. But what I’m not a fan of is those annoying robocalls we all seem to be getting these days – yes, even U.S. senators,” Warner says.

But, he said, help is on the way with the TRACED Act.

The new law should speed efforts by phone companies to offer consumers free tools to identify and block robocalls before they reach our phones. It sets tough criminal penalties and directs government agencies to work together to crack down on scammers. Previously, scammers viewed getting caught and paying civil penalties the cost of doing business.

The law also targets the so-called One Ring Scam, a scheme in which scammers place a call from a fake number and let it ring once, enticing the consumer to call back and incur the high cost of dialing a foreign country. New regulations are being written to help protect consumers from the scam.

All this should help knock down the volume of annoying calls but won’t end them. Cheap, easy calling over the Internet makes robocalls from around the world almost impossible to stop, and scammers fleece gullible consumers out of millions of dollars.

Plus, technology to block calls before they reach us doesn't work for home phones connected to old school copper landlines, the Associated Press reported, adding the law directs the Federal Communications Commission and phone companies to come with alternatives for those customers.

The TRACED Act is a good start. I won't start answering my phones anytime soon, though, and you may not want to either. At least we're facing the scourge of robocalls together -- and we're getting help from Washington.

Sen. Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, a sponsor of the bill, had it right when he said, "There are no blue robocalls; there are no red robocalls -- only despised robocalls."

(C) 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.