Single-Use Plastics: a Global Crisis

On and around June 5th, The United Nations promotes a host of activities related to World Environment Day. This year, countries around the globe are hosting public service messages, ad campaigns, and massive community clean-ups—including a giant citizen-run cleanup operation organized to remove litter from the rivers and river banks behind the Taj Mahal.

Here’s a series of videos created in honor of a single day that we hope will keep the spirit of respect and preservation alive throughout the year.

This June, many of these large and small community efforts around the world have been focused on one of the most serious environmental threats facing the planet, a threat that each individual person can influence by changing their own habits and actions: single-use plastic pollution.

A growing number of municipalities and nations are considering legislative action that bans the manufacture of single-use plastics, but so far, not quite enough of these laws have been put into practice. In most of the world, it still falls to individuals to make responsible choices and turn away from plastic cups, bags, food containers, cutlery and straws in favor of reusable options.

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Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, so every plastic object that is used and thrown away remains intact…somewhere. There are two possible destinations for a discarded straw or plastic bottle: on land or in the ocean.

Ocean pollution has become an international crisis that threatens marine ecosystems and spreads to every continent. The circulation of oxygen and maintenance of all life on the planet both begin with the oceans, and the spread of non-biodegradable ocean garbage is a tragedy with effects that have been underestimated for decades. The global community is beginning to take notice and act, though it remains to be seen if this action will be enough.

Plastics accumulating on land are creating an equally serious threat, as those who live near New Delhi landfills can testify.

As of this June, India is officially making plans to ban single use plastic by 2022 which will set an example for other developed nations drowning in their own garbage. In the meantime, please join our team as we follow the actions of UN member nations who celebrate the spirit of World Environment Day.

Family Separation at the US Border: The UN Finally Speaks Out

The practice of separating families—including the removal of very young children from the custody of their parents—has put into place by two immigration-related executive orders passed in January of 2017, then formally announced by attorney general Jeff Sessions in May of 2018. These policies have been implemented by the Trump administration, despite claims by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency that the administration “does not have a blanket policy on separating families as a deterrent” to would-be asylum seekers. (And despite claims by Trump himself that the practice existed before 2017).

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Some confusion has arisen over this policy and practice during the month that has elapsed between the attorney general’s announcement and the present, with slightly misleading statements made and parsed regarding the “loss” of approximately 1,400 children who were placed in the care of sponsors who later could not be reached for updates on their welfare or whereabouts.

But while the argument can be made that children placed with sponsors can’t and should not be tracked by federal agencies, one disturbing aspect of this jumbled narrative is clear: Since October of 2017, several hundred children of Central American asylum seekers have been forcibly removed from their parents—without recourse or explanation-- as part of a “zero tolerance” illegal immigration policy and the resulting criminal prosecutions applied to those who cross “irregularly”. These separations have been overtly used as a deterrent by the Trump administration, and as of June 5, 2018, the United Nations has formally spoken out against the practice.

United Nations human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani called upon the United States to immediately halt the practice as she spoke to reporters in Geneva. “The practice of separating families amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child. The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles,” she said.

Shamdasani made clear that this form of family separation flouts international human rights laws, to which the US is subject.

As it happens, this formal announcement has been released days after Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley attempted to visit an immigration detention center in Texas and was denied access, during a video taped scene in which the Senator was mysteriously forbidden from entering the facility, a former Wal-Mart with blacked out windows. No explanations have yet been provided and no information has been shared regarding who occupies the building and what conditions exist inside.

The UN announcement may result in an increased attempt to provide transparency or course corrections, but this is a disturbing turn of events in a nation with an otherwise positive record regarding democracy and respect for human rights. Join us as we follow these unfolding events.

Extreme Poverty in the United States: Present and Future

For generations, the United States has been viewed from the outside as one of the world’s wealthier nations, a place where anyone willing to take advantage of available educational resources and employment opportunities could gain access—at a minimum—to basic necessities like shelter, nutrition, electricity and plumbing.

This attitude and these assumptions have been just as pervasive among those who live within the US. The belief that “real” poverty is absent from the fabric of American life has been persistent, even during a dramatic two-decade rise in income inequality. In the United States, many believe that the poorest of the poor are protected by a basic safety net that keeps them from disappearing through the cracks—a net that provides supplemental nutritional support, free K-12 education, access to subsidized medical care, and refuge for those who find themselves homeless.

But this is simply not the case. And now, attacks on an already fraying, sometimes non-existent web of resources for those at the lowest end of the income spectrum have presented a growing segment of the population with literally nowhere to turn when hardship strikes. With the arrival of the current administration, even the thinnest fibers of stability, nutrition, safety and shelter are being aggressively dismantled.

The United States: Human Rights, Extreme Poverty, and Unmet Obligations

Philip Alston is a UN Special Rapporteur who observes and reports on poverty conditions among UN member nations, and his role involves visiting specific states (in 2017, the US) and reporting to the Council on “the extent to which the government’s policies and programs relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations, and to offer constructive recommendations to the government and other stakeholders.”

Did the United States Pass the Test?

Here is the text of Alston’s Report. The report’s introductory summary is short and direct and its two-fold message is clear: First, poverty and its ancillary effects (poor health, shorter lifespans, higher infant mortality rates, and lower engagement in the democratic process) are more prevalent in the United States than most other countries in the developed world. Our performance is dismal. And second, the Trump administration’s dramatic change in policy direction serves to exacerbate these problems and generate a radical redistribution of wealth and stability from the poor to the extremely well-off.

New tax policies disproportionately benefit the wealthiest 1% percent of the population while continuing the steady decrease in income share for the bottom 90%. This, combined with an aggressive dismantling of the social safety net and an active campaign of deregulation that removes basic protections from the daily lives of the lower and middle class, bode very poorly for already stagnant wages, diminishing employment opportunities, and limited health care access for most of the country.

In order to create this report, Philip Alston visited with and collected data from members of congress and government officials at all levels. He also took an extensive journey through American cities and rural areas and gained first hand access to the lives, homes and stories of people at all class levels, including those who live day-to-day in extreme poverty.

Review this article from the Guardian for descriptive accounts and a few photos of those he met with during this process, and join us as we work to counter the impact of these inexplicably cruel and destructive policy decisions.  

A UN Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic

In 2012, conflict between Christian militia members and a mostly Muslim rebel coalition in the Central African Republic (CAR) descended into what the UN defines as a civil war. In January of 2013, a peace agreement was reached, but the agreement collapsed just two months later as rebels seized the capital city of Bangui and forced the president, Francois Bozize, to flee.

Since that time, violent conflict has mired the CAR in a humanitarian and political crisis that has left the most vulnerable citizens—including children, the ill, and the poor—in need of security, nutrition and healthcare.  As of May 2018, one in four people in the country have been internally displaced, and the boundaries of this displacement now include central and northern areas that were formerly peaceful.

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Severe malnutrition and high infant mortality are serious concerns, but beyond these issues lie longer term problems; an entire generation of displaced children are not currently enrolled in school, which can have an impact that lasts far beyond the resolution of the conflict.

In 2014, the United Nations Security Council authorized a stabilization mission with the

protection of vulnerable citizens as its first priority. In addition to nutritional support, water access, and other humanitarian aid, when a burst of violence erupted in the capital earlier this year, UN troops were forced to intervene to prevent Muslim citizens from being denied healthcare access.

Najat Rochdi, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for CAR, spoke at a recent press conference in Geneva, emphasizing the depth and urgency of the crisis. She described a 70% percent increase in displacement in one year’s time, which runs at odds with 2017 funding levels that reached only 40 percent of what had been requested. Even so, the UN has managed to provide water access to one million people and educational support to 60,000 children. 70,000 farm families have received a seed allocation, and 17,000 small children suffering from acute malnutrition have been provided with intervention.

Also during her conference, Ms. Rochdi described the efforts of militia members to pressure the government to grant them amnesty. The UN has established a Special Criminal Court to deal with individual cases and, starting in early June, this court will work to prevent impunity for humanitarian crimes. The court will begin by addressing the cases of high profile militia group leaders, who are often responsible for attacks on aid workers in what is now considered one of the world’s most dangerous places for humanitarians.

What lies at the heart of the conflict and fuels the ongoing violence? The country’s natural wealth—gold, diamonds, and uranium-- mark the locations that experience the highest levels of strife. According to Ms. Rochdi, no problems exist in areas where there is “nothing to steal”.

Join us as we follow the early actions of the Special Criminal Court and the evolution of this ongoing crisis.

Water in the West: The Summer of 2018

For several years, researchers, agricultural managers, ecologists and a variety of experts have been monitoring water usage in the west and southwest with some concern. Most of the municipal and agricultural water used between New Mexico and Colorado flows from two sources. The first is the Colorado River (including Lake Powell and Lake Mead which frame the Grand Canyon and nourish populations all the way to Southern California). And the second source--the Rio Grande--supplies water for vast agricultural and community use in southern states from California to Texas.

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Increasing water requirements and agricultural demands have strained both of these two water resources for a long time, but so far, management and distribution practices have allowed the water to continue flowing throughout the summer months of highest need. Though the Rio Grande drops precipitously during these months, the water is typically replenished by the heavy snowpack that melts and flows from the Rocky Mountains every spring. It’s a cycle that repeats every two years; this year’s river water tends to represent last year’s melting snow.

In 2018, a cycle of consistently warming winters has taken a toll on the snowpack. An unusually warm, dry winter has reduced runoff from the Utah and Colorado land masses that typically direct that water into Lake Powell. Water level predictions for 2018 are among the worst in the last 54 years.

At the same time, the Rio Grande is drying with unusual speed this spring. In a typical year, the river levels drop and the mighty Rio Grande becomes unable to sustain heavy agricultural use by October. But this year, the water is already vanishing in May and will be expected to dry up by July, too early for farmers in the region who depend on the river to carry them through the full growing season. While late summer monsoons typically supplement the river and help growers finish the summer, the monsoons are notoriously unpredictable. This year, farmers may find it difficult to survive if they don’t show up.

Since the cycle of snow-to-river takes two years, not one, this year’s reduced snowpack will be felt more heavily in 2019. And as a result of heavy monsoon rains in 2016, Rio Grande reservoirs are high enough right now to partially mitigate concerns for the current year. But this year will provide a testing ground for future seasons in our current pattern of steadily rising global temperatures and shrinking water resources across the west. How we manage the summer of 2018 may help us predict and plan for potential water crises that may influence agricultural production and population fluctuations in the area during the decade ahead.

 

Support for Strategic Ethical Investing

We’ve shared posts in the past that deal with the subject of ethical financial divestment, or the act of divesting funds and portfolios away from the production and refinement of coal, oil, and natural gas. This move represents a comparatively low-effort, high-impact decision for many individuals and institutions, since the fossil fuel industry gains substantial oxygen from institutional portfolios (universities, 401Ks, health systems, etc). Ride-sharing and turning off unused appliances can make a difference, and so can similar moves on behalf of institutions and companies. But conservation should go hand in hand with broad financial decisions that reallocate funds to cleaner and greener businesses.

With that in mind, some conscientious investors are working toward both divestment from fossil fuels AND investment in solar and renewable money-makers that can still carry them toward retirement (in the case of individuals) and financial stability (institutions and non-profits.) The New York Times recently introduced us to an organization that facilitates this process, called DivestInvest (www.Divestinvest.org). Targeting healthcare institutions, trust funds, foundations, governments, private companies and individuals, the organization takes pledges from those who are willing to commit to its global clean energy goals. Not sure where to put your recently- or soon-to-be divested holdings? Check in with DivestInvest to find organizations who have taken the pledge.

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If you have the freedom to do so (which individuals typically do while institutions sometimes do not), review your portfolio and make some changes…but be careful. You’ll still need to choose funds and vehicles that meet your standards regarding returns and fee structures, and some commitments are more extensive than others. In total, the organizations and individuals who have taken the pledge have managed assets totaling six trillion USD, including foundations that have agreed to commit five percent of their holdings to clean and renewable technologies.

As is often the case, these efforts may not be quite enough to bring us closer to a collective tipping point at which we alter the trajectory of increasing fossil fuel use. But every action that slows the rise can be considered a move toward the ultimate goal: achieving a change in course before we reach an all-important global two-degree increase. Momentum in either direction matters as much as course and speed, and DivestInvest seems to be driving momentum by reducing the feeling of risk associated with investment shifts. By normalizing the process of conscientious reallocation, they’re paving the way for the rest of us.

 

A Questionable Election Outcome in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has held his current seat since the death of previous president Hugo Chavez in 2013. After taking over the helm of an oil-rich nation led by a well-liked figure who initiated a series of popular but unstable economic policy decisions, Maduro has built his presidential legacy by perpetuating the most damaging of these policies while failing to win a similar measure of respect and support among the Venezuelan people.

Now facing an inflationary crisis, citizens of what was until recently one of the wealthiest nations in South America have gone to the polls to choose a leader who will hold the position for a six-year term.

Elections took place this past weekend between Maduro and challenger Henri Falcon, but even before the polls opened, large numbers of Venezuelans planned to boycott the process, believing that the results would be manipulated. So far, these predictions appear to have been accurate. Despite evident popular sentiment and analyst expectations, Maduro walked away with 68 percent of the vote on Sunday. These results seem improbable, and the international community already appears to be mobilizing in condemnation.

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Citizens in Caracas turned out immediately in protest following the announcement of the results, many attributing the 40-point difference to—among other actions—vote-buying schemes designed to leverage the desperation of poor Venezuelans who have already been driven to the brink of starvation by the country’s devalued currency.

While many anti-government politicians and activists have been persecuted and forced to flee the country, Henri Falcon appears poised to stay and play a leadership role in ongoing protests. His position appears to be backed by at least 14 nations throughout the Americas (a growing list that includes Brazil, Mexico and Colombia). Members of the coalition have pledged to apply both diplomatic and economic pressure to the seemingly illegitimate government until it rectifies an electoral process that does not meet international standards.

A few serious obstacles impede the path toward grassroots-level change in Venezuela, and within these obstacles are lessons for all nations who find themselves facing internal corruption at the electoral level. First, in spite of—and possibly because of—economic desperation and precarious access to vital resources, many Venezuelans are not focused on presidential politics. According to polls and interviews, what might otherwise have become a formidable tide of outrage may be giving way to quiet disappointment and resignation. Second, a status quo has taken hold among many citizens here, since Maduro has held the position for five years. Despite his lack of success and low odds of future turnaround, his status as a fixture may prevent deeper anti-corruption sentiment from taking hold. 

But external pressure from the international community may be strong enough to initiate action. So far, El Salvador and Cuba have chosen to stand behind Maduro, but the European Union, most Latin American countries, and the US appear to back the opposition. A tipping point may be reached if the US imposes sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector, which so far has not happened. The events of the week ahead will provide us with predictive information about Venezuelans’ fight against corruption and the country’s prospects over the next six years.

United Nations Climate Change Talks in Bonn

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The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty adopted and ratified by the UN in the early 1990s. The framework sets non-binding, unenforced limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual member countries with a single goal in mind: "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".
Between late April and early May, UN representatives met in Bonn Germany with the UNFCCC framework in mind, using the treaty to guide what have become regular meetings focused on the search for a transition in global energy consumption. The next annual climate conference will be held in Katowice, Poland in December. Here are a few of the key highlights of the recent meeting.

Urgency

Urgency remains a focus, specifically for Pacific Island nations. The Bonn meeting provided the backdrop for the Talana Dialogue, led by the Prime Minister and representatives from Fiji. This dialogue centers around the personal stores shared by 250 Fiji participants. These stories collectively inspire a necessary sense of speed and expediency in the search for climate solutions. Read more here.

Gender Equality

Gender equality plays an important role in the success and forward motion of climate change mitigation. The Gender Action Plan (https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/cp23_auv_gender.pdf) acknowledges that many of the known impacts of climate change will have a disproportionate effect on women, and climate policy should be gender-responsive and involve balanced representation during planning and implementation stages. This plan urges the advancement of women’s participation in ongoing talks and Read more here.

Job Creation

Talks in Bonn also focused on the green economy and job development over the next several decades as renewable and sustainable resource options come to the foreground for policy makers. According to research conducted by the International Labor Organization, the right policy moves can pave the way for 24 million new positions created globally by 2030. According to ILO Deputy Director-General Deborah Greenfield, an emerging green economy can help millions of people around the world overcome a life of poverty and improve financial opportunity for this and future generations.  The report accounts for the possibility that some regions (those that depend heavily on petroleum mining and extraction) may experience job declines during the transition, and that higher outdoor temperatures will cause some forms of labor to become more difficult and dangerous. Read more about this priority here.

Dialogue, speakers and panel discussions throughout the two-week event emphasized a critical point: that without actionable policy change, these positive predictions would not materialize. The political decision making process will need to be bold, decisive, and inclusive of voices from across the labor spectrum to generate timely change. 
 

Democratic Elections in Iraq

Sometimes no news can be good news, especially when a developing situation or planned election appears poised to spark controversy or public unrest. This past weekend, our attention has been focused on strife at the border between Gaza and Israel, where Palestinians attempting to cross have been met with rifle fire by Israeli soldiers. More than 1,000 people have been wounded in this ongoing situation and at least 41 people have been killed, according to current reports. But since this story is unfolding in real time, we’ll discuss the developments and their implications later this week. Today, our thoughts turn to a far less eventful situation that took place this weekend, notable for its very lack of newsworthy twists and turns: the successful democratic elections taking place in Iraq for the first time since 2014.

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Why was this election weekend special?

In 2014, a nation of 37 million ethnically and religiously diverse individuals overcame an entrenched sense of sectarianism and united to push back the rise of the so-called Islamic state. The results of this recent election will not be counted and tallied until the coming week, and voter apathy will likely play a significant role (only about 44 percent of the population turned out to vote), but the process appeared both successful and promising for the future of democracy in Iraq.

Pulled apart by sectarian infighting since the American invasion in 2003 and rife with unregulated weapons and unpredictable violence, the streets of Baghdad were expected to flare with some measure of unrest on Saturday and Sunday. Security forces were deployed to mitigate incidents, but these incidents were few and far between. Quiet streets prevailed, and many citizens who appeared at voting centers expressed an interest in nationhood and patriotism and a desire to politically transcend barriers between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.

Also notable among opinions expressed by those turning out to vote: an interest in reducing corruption, increasing employment opportunities, and strengthening infrastructure. For the first time in several years, these domestic and personal concerns overshadowed security as a top issue.

Those who did not vote largely attributed their decision to frustration with slow progress and a lack of faith in an electoral system they don’t yet trust. But this frustration appears to represent a general sense of exhaustion after years of upheaval, not disinterest in the future of the nation. It’s possible that this weekend marks a minor but notable turning point in Iraq’s experience will fully representational governance. Priorities appear to be shifting from survival to unity and domestic growth, which could foretell higher turnout in elections yet to come. Join us this week as we follow the vote tallies and outcomes of this quietly historic event.

Meanwhile, here’s a simple breakdown of current parliamentary seats and electoral results as they come in.

Civil War in Yemen: What Happens Next?

In mid-April, the United Nations Security Council listened to the address of Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen, and the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock. The two had been called upon to speak to the council about the developing humanitarian crisis in war-torn Yemen.

In a deepening exchange of civil hostilities between an international coalition of forces supporting President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi on the one side, and Houthi militias and allied units of the armed forces on the other, both sides appear to want peace, but so far, negotiations have been difficult and an agreement has been elusive.

US involvement has added an unfortunate and complicated dimension to the conflict.

Major US troop deployments and military decisions, such as the decision to enter a violent altercation, have traditionally been subject to congressional authorization, since public debate increases transparency and requires presidents and generals to justify their decisions and be held accountable for the outcomes. But since 9/11, the congressional review process has changed dramatically, and the current administration has taken unfortunate advantage of the new shroud of secrecy that hangs over the decision to send troops into war.

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Under the new authorizations procedures, the US initially sent troops to Yemen to fight Al Qaeda extremists, but since that time, a separate conflict has broken out on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, a conflict between indigenous Houthi rebels who pose no threat to the US, and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.

US troops have been deployed to fight the rebels, who are backed by Iran. Originally, the US administration claimed that US troops were only engaged in refueling and logistics in the area, not combat, but this has turned out to be untrue. At a hearing in March, Senators were provided with a false statement by General Joseph Votel, head of the Central Command, who claimed that the US was not party to the conflict. In fact, US troops were already deeply engaged—without congressional approval-- in an action that has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises on record.

According to the UN special envoy, the numbers of people who are currently facing famine and those who have lost their homes both number in the millions. A cholera outbreak is descending on the area, and with the airport closed to commercial traffic, critically ill patients may not be able to receive treatments that are not available in Yemen.

Meanwhile, even though the conflict has reached a form of stalemate, Saudi Arabian military leaders are determined to press forward toward a brutal military victory, and the current US administration is supplying Saudi Arabia with both troops and the sale of a steady flow of military hardware.

Violent actions in the area may end soon, but the humanitarian disaster left in the wake of this civil war will worsen before it improves. The role the UN will play in mitigating this damage remains to be seen. In the light of exposure, the US administration may also be pressured to change course, but so far, no change seems imminent. Join us as we follow these unfolding events.