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We fact-checked what Trump and Clinton said about energy at the debate

Donald Trump told a few lies about energy during the debate Sunday night, while Hillary Clinton reiterated her warm feelings for natural gas.

In the last substantive question of the town hall–style debate, an audience member asked how the candidates’ energy policies would “meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”


Trump went first, cramming an impressive number of false and nonsensical statements into his two-minute answer. (On the upside, he demonstrated that he now knows what EPA stands for, correctly referring to it as the Environmental Protection Agency instead of “Department of Environmental.”) Here are the highlights:

• Trump: “[E]nergy is under siege by the Obama administration. … We are killing, absolutely killing, our energy business in this country.”

In fact: Total U.S. energy production has increased for the last six years in a row. The oil and gas sector has been booming during the Obama presidency, as have the solar and wind industries. Coal companies have been struggling — but that is largely not the fault of President Obama, just as the oil boom is largely not something he can take credit for.

• Trump: “I will bring our energy companies back. … They will make money. They will pay off our national debt. They will pay off our tremendous budget deficits.”

In fact: There is no remotely credible economic analysis to suggest that Trump’s proposals for expanded domestic fossil fuel extraction would generate enough additional tax revenue to close the budget deficit, much less pay off the existing national debt. It’s particularly implausible when you consider Trump’s massive tax-cut plans that would make both the deficit and debt considerably larger.

• Trump: “I’m all for alternative forms of energy, including wind, including solar, etc.”

In fact: Trump’s energy plan offers nothing to increase solar or wind energy production, but instead focuses on boosting fossil fuels.

• Trump: “There is a thing called clean coal.”

In fact: The hope that coal plants’ carbon emissions can be drastically reduced — either through technology that captures and sequesters the emissions or that converts coal to synthetic gas — burns eternal for the coal industry’s cheerleaders. But no one has actually significantly cut emissions at an economically viable coal plant. The promises of “clean coal” projects have not been fulfilled.

• Trump: “Foreign companies are now coming in and buying so many of our different plants, and then rejiggering the plant so they can take care of their oil.”

In fact: What is Trump trying to say with this gibberish? We have no idea.


Clinton’s answer was, as one would expect, more cautious and tempered. She said, among other things, that she supports “moving toward more clean, renewable energy as quickly as we can, because I think we can be the 21st century clean-energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses.” And her climate and energy plan would indeed promote renewable power.

But she also made some dubious statements herself:

• Clinton: “We are … producing a lot of natural gas, which serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels, and I think that’s an important transition.”

In fact: This comment surely set many climate activists’ teeth on edge — and not for the first time, as Clinton has been saying similar things for years. Many activists strongly disagree that natural gas should be part of a plan to shift to renewables and fight climate change. Multiple studies have indicated that natural gas is no better for the climate than coal when you consider the high rates of methane leakage in natural gas production and transport., the aggressive anti–fossil fuel group, swiftly issued a statement criticizing that comment while praising the rest of Clinton’s response.

• Clinton: “[W]e are now, for the first time ever, energy independent. We are not dependent upon the Middle East. But the Middle East still controls a lot of the prices.”

In fact: Clinton was pandering to voter ignorance with her claim that the U.S. has become “energy independent.” Though U.S. oil production is up and oil imports are down, the country is still a net importer of crude oil and petroleum products. And as Clinton herself acknowledged, global oil prices are set by global supply and demand, so we will not be disentangled from the Middle East until we stop using so much oil, regardless of where it is drilled.


Clinton, unlike Trump, did say that her energy plan includes “fighting climate change, because I think that’s a serious problem.” That was the entirety of either candidate’s nod to the “environmentally friendly” portion of the question.

Political discussion of energy still revolves mainly around how to produce more of it rather than how to produce it without burning up the planet.

Election Guide ★ 2016Making America Green AgainOur experts weigh in on the real issues at stake in this election

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We fact-checked what Trump and Clinton said about energy at the debate

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I ate how many trees for breakfast?


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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo

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How to Paint Citadel Miniatures: XV95 Ghostkeel Battlesuit (Tablet Edition) – Games Workshop

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White Dwarf Issue 89: 10th October 2015 (Tablet Edition) – White Dwarf

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White Dwarf Issue 88: 03rd October 2015 (Tablet Edition) – White Dwarf

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I ate how many trees for breakfast?

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How Kansas Is Selling Sam Brownback’s Failed Trickle-Down Tax Cuts

Mother Jones

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s reelection campaign is in serious trouble. The latest poll has the incumbent Republican losing to his Democratic opponent by 4 percentge points.

Read more about how Sam Brownback’s red-state experiment could turn Kansas purple.

As I explained in our November/December issue, Brownback’s woes can largely be traced back to the drastic tax cuts for the wealthy that he pushed through the state legislature. Kansas’ tax rate for top earners dropped from 6.45 to 4.9 percent, with further future cuts baked in. The cuts were even more generous for business owners, entirely wiping away their tax burden for pass-through income.

Brownback sold his tax cuts on supply-side promises of unbounded future growth, but the results have been less than stellar: While the state’s unemployment rate, like the national jobless rate, has dropped over the past few years, Kansas’ economic growth has lagged behind its neighbors’.

Despite these disappointing results, the state has settled on enticing out-of-state businesses with its low tax rate. Check out this full-page ad from the Kansas Department of Commerce, scanned from an issue of the US Small Business Administration’s magazine Small Business Resource by a reader:

Small Business Resource

That ad’s pitch—”one of the most pro-growth tax policies in the country” leads to “a perfect state”—lines up with the theories of free-market economist Arthur Laffer, the grand poobah of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. Brownback cited Laffer’s work to justify his cuts. During the thick of the legislative debate, he flew Laffer in for a three-day sales pitch, costing the state $75,000.

When I called Laffer in August, he excitedly proclaimed that Brownback’s cuts would prove a resounding success. “I’ll make you a very large bet that Kansas will improve its relative position to the US over, let’s say, eight years, hands down. I’ll bet you with great odds,” he told me. “I feel very confident that what Sam Brownback has done is and will be extraordinarily beneficial for the state of Kansas.”

As Laffer saw it, low tax rates would entice out-of-state residents and businesses to relocate. Laffer himself had moved to Tennessee sight unseen nine years ago, fleeing from California because of the Volunteer State’s lack of income tax. “In someplace like Kansas, I don’t think the income tax makes any sense whatsoever,” Laffer said. “That’s what we’re trying to move toward in Kansas. The income tax is a killer.”

Except that magical migration hasn’t developed yet. In August, the state added just 900 jobs, with a tepid growth rate of just half a percent for the full year. Maybe I should have made that bet with Laffer.


How Kansas Is Selling Sam Brownback’s Failed Trickle-Down Tax Cuts

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Why Henry Waxman Was One of the Most Important Congressmen Ever

Mother Jones

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The news on Thursday morning came as a shocker to the politerati: Henry Waxman is retiring. This Democratic congressman from Los Angeles has been a Capitol Hill fixture and progressive crusader for decades, since he was first elected in 1974. He vigorously pursued Big Tobacco and enthusiastically championed climate change legislation. He’s been a fierce advocate for consumer rights, health care, and the environment. As the Washington Post notes, Waxman, 74 years old, has passed measures “to make infant formula safer and more nutritious (1980), bring low-priced generic drugs to market (1984), clean the air (1990), provide services and medical care to people with AIDS (1996), and reform and modernize the Postal Service (2006). He was also instrumental in the passage of the Affordable Care Act.” In 2005, I wrote a profile of Waxman that dubbed him the “Democrats’ Eliot Ness.” Here are some excerpts:

It’s nothing new, says Representative Henry Waxman. For decades—literally—this Democrat from the Westside of Los Angeles has mounted high-profile investigations and hearings while churning out sharp-edged reports: on toxic emissions, the tobacco industry, pesticides in drinking water. But during George W. Bush’s first term as President, Waxman, the senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, established himself as the Democrats’ chief pursuer of purported wrongdoing within the Bush Administration. He has mounted a series of “special investigations”—of Halliburton, Enron, the flu vaccine crisis, conflicts of interest at the Department of Homeland Security, national missile defense. He has produced reports on secrecy in the Bush Administration, misleading prewar assertions made by Bush officials about Iraq’s WMDs, Bush’s politicization of science. And he has won considerable media attention for his efforts. Working with Representative John Dingell, he sicced the Government Accountability Office on Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force to get the names of the industry executives who helped cook up Cheney’s energy plan. (Cheney told the GAO to take a hike; the GAO filed suit, lost and then declined to appeal.) More recently, Waxman released a headlines-grabbing report revealing that federally funded abstinence-only sex-ed programs peddle false information to teens. (One claimed condom use does not prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.) With all this muckraking, the 65-year-old Waxman has become the Eliot Ness of the Democrats.

“Waxman has been important for House Democrats,” says Representative Jim McGovern, a liberal from Massachusetts. “With the Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, it’s hard to be heard. He’s found ways to get our message out.” Representative George Miller, the senior Democrat on the Education Committee, notes, “He’s developed the model. It’s what we would like every ranking member to do—to ask questions, be persistent and not accept silence. He’s motivated other Democrats and has even created some discontent within the Democratic caucus because newer members on other committees sometimes don’t think the ranking members are aggressive enough.” And on the Senate side, Democrats–perhaps encouraged by Waxman’s example—have announced they will create their own investigative team and conduct unofficial hearings on alleged Bush Administration wrongdoing.

The snub-nosed, bespectacled, balding and far-from-tall Waxman is not flamboyant or flashy. He speaks softly but directly and has a forceful manner. His Democratic colleagues routinely joke about his persistence and tenacity. “Don’t get into an argument with Henry,” says Miller. “But if you do, bring your lunch. He won’t let you go.”

The piece noted that Waxman had assembled a substantial history of legislative accomplishment:

Through most of Waxman’s first twenty years in Congress, he chaired the influential Health and Environment Subcommittee and mainly focused on legislation—Medicaid expansion, the clean-air law, AIDS, tobacco—winning a description in The Almanac of American Politics as “a skilled and idealistic policy entrepreneur.” During those years, Waxman says, producing reports was primarily a device for drawing attention to an issue and building a case for legislation. For instance, after the 1984 disaster at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, he and his staff, realizing that toxic air pollutants were unregulated in the United States, investigated the pollution from chemical plants in Kanawha Valley, West Virginia. The resulting report concluded that the valley was being exposed to high amounts of toxic emissions. With that report in hand, Waxman pushed through legislation that required the Environmental Protection Agency to collect more data on emissions. He then used the information gathered to win passage in 1990 of a measure that reduced toxic air pollution.

And I reported that Waxman was not reluctant to take on Democrats—or seek compromises with Republicans:

Working with other Democrats, Waxman notes, has not always been easy. Through the 1980s, he engaged in a now-legendary clash with John Dingell, then the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a protector of the auto industry, over clean-air legislation. Finally, the two hammered out a deal that led to the 1990 Clean Air Act. In 2003 Waxman proposed setting up an independent commission to investigate Bush’s use—or abuse—of the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. But senior Democrats who deal with intelligence issues would not join him. “More and more,” he says, “I am happy to do things on my own.”

Waxman has been characterized by the right-wing media as a partisan hack only interested in nipping at Bush’s heels. But with no opportunity to legislate, there’s little alternative for him but to focus on oversight. And Waxman has not always acted as a partisan pitbull. In the mid-1990s he spent two years privately concocting a tobacco bill with Republican Representative Thomas Bliley, a champion of the tobacco industry. The two reached a compromise, Waxman says, but the GOP House leadership rejected the measure. During the Clinton campaign finance scandal, Waxman called for Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel. “We were not happy with that,” says one former Clinton White House aide. Later Waxman assailed Clinton for pardoning fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Waxman did vote to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq. He now says, “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have voted for it.” He points out that two days before the invasion he sent a letter to Bush noting that Bush’s use of the unproven allegation that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa was an act of “knowing deception or unfathomable incompetence” that undermined Bush’s case for war. Waxman was on to the Niger story months before it became big news, but his charge that Bush had peddled misinformation—or disinformation—received little notice in the United States.

Waxman has a safe seat; he handily wins re-election. His anti-Bush endeavors play well in Hollywood. Without having to fret about re-election, he can afford to exercise what Schiliro cites as one of his chief assets: patience. “He doesn’t mind spending eight years working on an issue,” Schiliro says. “He passed AIDS and clean-air legislation, and that took years.” And that may be why, when I ask Waxman if he will be able to remain motivated for another four years of Bush battles, he simply shrugs his shoulders. With four more Bush years to come, Waxman says, he expects to stay the course: more investigations, more reports. On what he’s not sure, but he does say he anticipates continuing his probes of government contracting. “I hope we can investigate this with the Republicans,” he comments. “This isn’t partisan; it involves protecting taxpayer dollars. And there’s been a clear failure of oversight by the Republicans. If they won’t join us, then we’ll just have to get the information out to the public.” But, he adds, “it’s hard for the Democrats to be as mean and tough as the House Republican leadership.”

His retirement won’t mean much in terms of raw politics: His seat is in a reliably safe Democratic district. But it will be a great loss for those who care about clear air, clean water, health care, economic fairness, and much more. Waxman was the ideal House member, skilled in politics and passionate about policy, able to legislate and investigate, and driven by principles rather than ego. He is one of the more—if not the most—effective House member of the past 40 years. You may even be alive because of him.

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Why Henry Waxman Was One of the Most Important Congressmen Ever

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The Science of Tea Party Wrath

Mother Jones

If you want to understand how American politics changed for the worse, according to moral psychologist and bestselling author Jonathan Haidt, you need only compare two quotations from prominent Republicans, nearly fifty years apart.

The first is from the actor John Wayne, who on the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 said, “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president and I hope he does a good job.”

The second is from talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who on the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 said, “I hope he fails.”

The latter quotation, Haidt explains in the latest episode of Inquiring Minds (click above to stream audio), perfectly captures how powerful animosity between the two parties has become—often overwhelming any capacity for stepping back and considering the national interest (as the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis so unforgettably showed). As a consequence, American politics has become increasingly tribal and even, at times, hateful.

And to understand how this occurred, you simply have to look to Haidt’s field of psychology. Political polarization is, after all, an emotional phenomenon, at least to a large degree.

Jonathan Haidt thinks our political views are a by-product of emotional responses instilled by evolution.

“For the first time in our history,” says Haidt, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, “the parties are not agglomerations of financial or material interest groups, they’re agglomerations of personality styles and lifestyles. And this is really dangerous. Because if it’s just that you have different interests, that doesn’t mean I’m going to hate you. It just means that we’ve got to negotiate, I want to win, but we can negotiate. If it’s now that ‘You people on the other side, you’re really different from me, you live in a different way, you pray in a different way, you eat different foods than I do,’ it’s much easier to hate those people. And that’s where we are.”

Haidt is best known for his “moral foundations” theory, an evolutionary account of the deep-seated emotions that that guide how we feel (not think) about what is right and wrong, in life and also in politics. Haidt likens these moral foundations to “taste buds,” and that’s where the problem begins: While we all have the same foundations, they are experienced to different extents on the left and the right. And because the foundations refer to visceral feelings that precede and guide our subsequent thoughts, this has a huge consequence for polarization and political dysfunction. “It’s just hard for you to understand the moral motives of your enemy,” Haidt says. “And it’s so much easier to listen to your favorite talk radio station, which gives you all the moral ammunition you need to damn them to hell.”

Here’s an illustration of the seven moral foundations identified by Haidt, and how they differ among liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, from a recent paper by Haidt and his colleagues.

Jonathan Haidt and colleagues, PLOS One

To unpack a bit more what this means, consider “harm.” This moral foundation, which involves having compassion and feeling empathy for the suffering of others, is measured by asking people how much considerations of “whether someone cared for someone weak and vulnerable” and “whether or not someone suffered emotionally” factor into their decisions about what is right and wrong. As you can see, liberals score considerably higher on such questions. But now consider another foundation, “purity,” which is measured by asking people how much their moral judgments involve “whether or not someone did something disgusting” and “whether or not someone violated standards of purity or decency.” Conservatives score dramatically higher on this foundation.


How does this play into politics? Very directly: Research by one of Haidt’s colleagues has shown, for instance, that Republicans whose districts were “particularly low on the Care/Harm foundation” were most likely to support shutting down the government over Obamacare. Why?

Simply put, if you feel a great deal of compassion for those who lack health care, passing and enacting a law that provides it to them will be an overriding moral concern to you. But if you don’t feel it so strongly, different moral concerns can easily become paramount. “On the right, it’s not that they don’t have compassion,” says Haidt, “but their morality is not based on compassion. Their morality is based much more on a sense of who’s cheating, who’s slacking.”

For Haidt, the political moment that perfectly captured this conservative (and Tea Party) morality—while simultaneously showing how absolutely incomprehensible it is to those on the left—was Wolf Blitzer’s famous 2011 Republican presidential debate gotcha question to Ron Paul. Blitzer asked Paul a hypothetical question about a healthy, 30-year-old man who doesn’t get health care because he doesn’t think he needs it, but then winds up in a serious medical situation. When Blitzer asked Paul whether society should just “let him die,” there were audible cheers and cries of “yeah” from the audience—behavior that was appalling to care-focused liberals, but that is eminently understandable, under Haidt’s paradigm, as an emotional outburst based on a very different morality. Watch it:

“My analysis is that the Tea Party really wants the Indian law of Karma, which says that if you do something bad, something bad will happen to you, if you do something good, something good will happen to you,” says Haidt. “And if the government interferes and breaks that link, it is evil. That I think is much of the passion of the Tea Party.”

In other words, while you may think your political opponents are immoral—and while they probably think the same of you—Haidt’s analysis shows that the problem instead is that they are too moral, albeit in a visceral rather than an intellectual sense.

As a self-described centrist, Haidt sometimes draws ire from the left for comments about how liberals don’t understand their opponents, and about how conservatives have a broader range of moral emotions. But he certainly doesn’t claim that when it comes to political animosity and the polarization that we now live under, both sides are equally to blame. “The rage on the Republican side is stronger, the Republicans have gotten much more extreme than the Democrats have,” Haidt says.

The data on polarization are as clear as they are disturbing. Overall, feelings of warmth towards members of the opposite party are at terrifying lows, and Congress is perhaps more polarized than it has been in the entire period following the Civil War:

Increasing polarization of the U.S. Congress, based on analysis of congressional votes by University of Rochester political scientist Keith Poole. Keith Poole/

But this situation isn’t the result of parallel changes on both sides of the aisle. “The Democrats, the number of centrists has shrunk a bit, the number of conservative Democrats has shrunk a bit, but it’s not that dramatic, and the Democratic party, certainly in Congress, is a mix of centrists, moderately liberal and very liberal people,” says Haidt. “Whereas the Republicans went from being overwhelmingly centrist in the ’50s and ’60s, to having almost no centrists,” Haidt says.

And of course, the extremes are the most morally driven, the most intense.

From the centrist perspective, Haidt recently tweeted that “I hope the Republican party breaks up and a new party forms based on growth, not austerity or the past.”

“This populist movement on the right,” he says, is “sick and tired of the allegiance with business.” And more and more, business feels likewise, especially after the debt ceiling and shutdown disaster.

“I think this gigantic failure might be the kind of kick that some reformers need to change how the Republicans are doing things,” says Haidt. “That’s my hope, at least.”

For the full interview with Jonathan Haidt, listen here:

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by bestselling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features a discussion of new research on how marmosets are polite conversationalists (seriously) and of how Glenn Beck doesn’t understand statistics.

To catch future shows right when they release, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

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The Science of Tea Party Wrath

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IKEA’s Next Bright Idea: Sell Solar Panels

IKEA has installed solar panels on nearly 300 stores worldwide and will begin selling home solar panels in the U.K. in 2014. Photo: Volodymyr Kyrylyuk/Shutterstock

The world’s largest do-it-yourself home furnishings retailer is about to put something new on the shelves: solar panels. IKEA recently announced that it will begin selling solar panels in the U.K. through a partnership with Hanergy Solar Group, a Hong Kong–based company that produces thin film solar panels. But don’t worry, the panels won’t be a DIY adventure accompanied by IKEA’s famous illustrated, wordless instructions: Hanergy will also provide consultation, installation and maintenance services.

IKEA has already made its commitment to solar very clear, installing more than half a million panels on nearly 300 stores globally, including about 40 in the U.S. The company — which has previously shown its commitment to green initiatives by selling energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs and offering consumer recycling programs — says it will source all its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The U.K. provides a logical starting point for IKEA’s solar panel sales. Solar energy there has become more mainstream and installations have more than doubled since the end of 2011, according to government figures, thanks to a combination of lower prices and state subsidies. IKEA began a “test run” of solar panel sales in July, and based on the success of that program, decided to launch its solar panel division in mid-2014. Presently, the store sells about one solar panel system every day, according to IKEA.

The standard 3.36-kW systems will power an average three-bedroom home and slash its energy costs. The systems will sell for about $9,200, and it will take an average of seven years for the system to pay for itself, according to the information released by IKEA. A leasing option will also be available.

At this time, IKEA has not announced plans to begin solar panel sales in the U.S. However, in June, it announced plans to add two dozen charging stations for electric vehicles at U.S. IKEA locations, bringing the total number to 55.


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IKEA’s Next Bright Idea: Sell Solar Panels

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Obama and the Syria Deal: Deter, Not Punish

Mother Jones

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In search of popular and congressional support for a limited and narrow strike on Syria, President Barack Obama has contended that the aim of military action would be to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its presumed use of chemical weapons and deter it from the further use of such horrific arms. The possible Russia-brokered deal that has emerged in the face of Obama’s threatened attack—Syria submitting its chemical weapons to international control—could prevent a US assault on Syria and yield Obama a diplomatic victory. But he would have to settle for an incomplete win. Assad would presumably not be able to launch another massive chemical weapons attack, but the Syrian dictator would not be truly punished for his military’s use of chemical weapons.

Under the no-details-yet arrangement being pursued by Washington, Moscow, and the United Nations, Assad would presumably give up control of his chemical weapons stock. How that happens remains to be seen. Will he hand over these arms to the UN or another international agency for destruction? Will he allow inspectors to monitor and guard his storage facilities? Will he truly honor the agreement and not stash some chemical weapons in a hiding place? But any regimen would certainly make it difficult, if not impossible, for Assad to once again use chemical weapons against his foes. Moreover, Vladimir Putin and Russia would now be on the hook, essentially guarantors that Assad would not again resort to such arms. And given that Russia is Assad’s No. 1 sponsor, Assad could not afford to tick off Moscow. So no matter how imperfect the international control system might be, there will be plenty of incentive for Assad to keep his hands off chemical weapons—and for Russia to lean on him. (Of course, in extreme circumstances—say, a situation in which the survival of the regime is at stake—Assad and his Russian pals might rejigger their calculations.) Consequently, a deal would likely achieve what Obama has sought: deterring Assad from further chemical weapons attacks.

Yet the accord in the works has no punitive aspect. Assad will not be held accountable for the August 21 attack near Damascus that killed 1400 civilians, including many children. And he will be able to continue slaughtering others with conventional means. Will other tyrants get the message that using chemical weapons will not be accepted by the international community?

Still, the possible unintended consequences of a punitive strike on Syria remain: civilian casualties, shifting the balance of power in favor of Al Qaeda-connected rebels, and creating more chaos and conflict in Syria and the region. Is punishing Assad worth potentially destabilizing the country further? (A collapse of the Syrian regime could lead to a WMD free-for-all there.) If this deal solidifies—and that’s a good-sized if—Obama might have to accept deterrence as the net gain. Afterward, he can focus on the tougher challenge of resolving the Syrian conflict and bringing Assad to justice.

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Obama and the Syria Deal: Deter, Not Punish

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Dancing in Damascus

Mother Jones

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As I think of Syria today, two neighborhoods of Damascus are on my mind.

One is Yarmouk, a neighborhood of mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendants. When I think of the “the camp,” as it was so often called, I don’t usually think of the fact that it’s population has shrunk to a fraction of the 112,000 people that once lived in that 0.8 square mile space. I don’t think about allegations of a little-reported chemical attack there last July. I don’t think about the shelling and crushing of homes.

When I think of Yarmouk, I think of that hour, at about 4am, when pious old men shuffled to the mosque to begin the day and clutches of young people walked home with a swagger to end their night. I think of the way the sky at the end of Palestine street would turn pink at the end of the afternoon as I carried bags of cucumbers or peas or cherries home from the market. I loved how the streets felt lived in—how they filled every night with scraps of fruit rinds and newspapers and plastic bags yet were clean by the morning. I loved that everyone lived so close together in Yarmouk and that the voices of gossiping women and kids playing soccer in the alley blended with the music of Fairuz and Um Kalthoum and the cooing of pigeons in our windows.

When I think of Yarmouk, I think of Mazen’s house. Mazen had done five years as a political prisoner, but he didn’t really talk about it much. He was the glue to an intellectual and cultural circle in the camp. Most Thursday nights, he’d cook an elaborate feast and sometimes he’d show a film or people would read poetry or someone would present their photography. Later in the night, the music would come on. Some would dance, flicking their wrists above their heads and jutting their hips sideways. Others would spill out onto the little courtyard, where conversations would build: Was Obama better than Bush for the Middle East? What was the best collection of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry? Was it wise to ally with “enlightened sheikhs” to spread political messages through the mosques? What was the future of Assad?

When I left Yarmouk in July 2009 for a short trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, I had no idea it would be the last time I’d see it. One friend, Ayman, saw us out that morning. He was quite a bit younger than me, but he was always worrying about us. “Be careful,” he said as we left. I couldn’t have imagined that in a few days, my girlfriend (now wife) Sarah, my friend Josh, and I would be captured and thrown in Iran’s Evin prison. Or that within a few years government snipers would position themselves on Yarmouk street and pick off men who entered the camp.

Ayman (not his real name) had agreed to take care of our plants while we were away. A handful of days after we left, he saw a report on our capture on the news. He went back to our apartment and sat there alone, silently. Then, he gathered up as many of our things as he could—our trinkets from Yemen and the Old City of Damascus, my Arabic books, the beautiful short stories of the Syrian writer, Zakaria Tamer. (I love his shortest of all: “A sparrow left his cage, and when he grew hungry, he returned to it.”) He took all these things and stored them in his parents’ house. He left Sarah’s dry-erase board just as it was.

Our friends went to the Iranian embassy to plead our case, taking considerable risk in identifying themselves with Americans whom Tehran was accusing of espionage. A few days later, the secret police took over our apartment. Ayman never went back. Neither did we.

Before living in Yarmouk, we lived in the far north of the city. The neighborhood was called Muhajireen, and it clung to the side of Mount Qasioun. Had it been in the United States, Muhajireen would have been prime real estate, perched so high above the city. In Damascus however, the rich didn’t like to climb hills. Most people didn’t, really. It was difficult to get our friends to come there, it felt like such a trek.

It was a hard climb, it’s true. I remember walking down on winter days, sliding on ice as I descended. Cars would skid and slip sloppily down the hill. I’d walk down to the bottom of the hill, past the cemetery where people dusted off their loved ones’ tombstones, past the mosque that held the tomb of ibn Arabi, the 13th century Sufi philosopher. I’d enter suq al jumaa, the most beautiful market I’ve ever seen, where barrels of brightly colored pickles were stacked along the cobbled roads. The air smelled of spice and fresh bread.

Muhajireen was like an incredible little secret—you could see almost the entire city, all 1.7 million people of it, from up there. At dusk, I’d sometimes go up onto our roof. I’d watch pigeons take flight from the coop on our neighbor’s rooftop, spiraling upward in tight circles so high that they almost became invisible. Then, with a piercing whistle and a wave of a bright flag, my neighbor would send them diving back toward earth, swooping straight into their coop. I could see such flocks of pigeons rising across the entire city, tracing little rings in the sky.

We often sat on the roof at night too, smoking apple tobacco from our argilla pipe and reading the roads of the city, laid out in front of us like a giant illuminated map. As I stared at the Old City, a vaguely circular 5,000-year-old patch in the midst of straight lines, I’d often think of the prophet Mohammed. Legend has it that he stood atop Mount Qasioun as he passed through Syria. From its apex, he looked down on the city of Damascus, but declined to enter it. “Man should only enter paradise once,” he said.

Even after we moved across the city to Yarmouk, I would come back sometimes to go up on Mount Qasioun and look out over the city at night. The last time I went up there, Sarah, some friends, and I climbed up just above the line of houses. We wanted to go farther, but we stopped short when we saw what looked to be a military base.

I couldn’t have imagined rockets flying down from that spot and waking people before dawn, making them choke and kick and scream, shrinking their pupils down to needlepoints. I don’t know for certain that chemical weapons were launched from there, as some have reported—the US is now saying some were shot from another base. What I do know now is that the base we came upon when we climbed that night was a station of the Republican Guard and that it is one of several sites that witnesses said they saw rockets raining down on Ghouta the night of the chemical attack.

If the United States does decide to strike in Syria this station will almost certainly be a target. If there are chemical weapons there, will they explode? Which direction will the wind be blowing—away from, or toward the houses beneath the pigeon coops?

Sometimes, when I think of Damascus, I think of a park on the edge of Yarmouk. It was barren—some plastic chairs and tables placed across an expanse of mostly dirt. Neon lights hung off dry, leafless trees. Nearby, a grumpy man was perpetually chasing children out of his artichoke field. I’d often go there in the afternoon. In the distance, Assad’s presidential palace seemed to be looking over us, over everything.

“You see this road?” a friend asked me one day as we sat there, pointing to the street that hugged the edge of the camp. “This didn’t used to be here. When I was a kid, if you came out past these houses, this was all fields. Then Assad built this road all the way around the camp so they could gain access to it quickly, should they need to.”

Not long after the uprising began, Syrian rebels occupied the camp and the military put it under siege. Most of our friends left, but Ayman’s family stayed. Eventually, the Syrian military burned their house down.

Still, they didn’t go. One day, Ayman’s family drove down Yarmouk street, that thoroughfare I remember as a teeming stretch of glitzy shops, internet café’s and juice bars. As they drove, a bullet from a sniper pierced the front window and entered Ayman’s stepdad’s head. He died instantly alongside his wife and step-daughter.

I had met him once, at Ayman’s house. We were eating pizza. I remember the night being warm. He came home to find Ayman dancing in the middle of the living room for no apparent reason. I think the music on the stereo was Algerian, which was the rage at the time. He hugged his wife and gave her a kiss, then he sat down on the couch, laughing and watching as Ayman continued to dance.

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Dancing in Damascus

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InsideClimate wins Pulitzer for reporting on tar-sands spill

InsideClimate wins Pulitzer for reporting on tar-sands spill

Nonprofit news site InsideClimate has done killer work reporting on the dangers of tar-sands pipelines, work that’s gotten far too little recognition — until now. On Monday, three reporters at the organization were honored with a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on national affairs. The Pulitzer site notes that the prize was awarded to …

Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemyer of InsideClimate News, Brooklyn, N.Y., for their rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or “dilbit”), a controversial form of oil.

More from InsideClimate:

The trio took top honors in the category for their work on “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of,” a project that began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.

Speaking of unprepared:

The recent ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Arkansas, which also involved heavy Canadian crude oil, underscores the continuing relevance of this ongoing body of work, as the White House struggles with reaching a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

You can read the prizewinning series on the InsideClimate site, or get it as an e-book, or read Grist’s handy summary. And then follow InsideClimate every day. They do nonprofit green news sites proud!

Lisa Hymas is senior editor at Grist. You can follow her on





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InsideClimate wins Pulitzer for reporting on tar-sands spill

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The Definitive Guide to Bedbug Sex

Image: Armed Forces Pest Management Board

The last thing you want in your bed is bedbugs. But here is an even grosser thought to handle: bedbugs have sex in your bed.

How do they do it? Turns out, we’re really interested in this. There are a lot of explainers out there. Here are three that will get you up to speed on the bedbug hanky-panky.

Anna Rothschild at NOVA knows you want to know:

As Rothschild explains, male bedbugs have saber-like penises, that they use to stab females in the abdomen. The male releases sperm into the females circulatory system, not into their reproductive tract which is used for outbound eggs only.

Here’s another take on bedbug sex, by the always weird-yet-entertaining Green Porno:

And if you want the real deal, here’s a video of real bedbugs having sex.

Like Rothschild says, good luck sleeping now that you know this might be happening in your bed.

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The Definitive Guide to Bedbug Sex

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