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The TL;DR on that report that says we’re killing off everything

Have you heard the news? In our relatively short time on this little blue dot, humankind has managed to put 1 million species at risk. Way to go, idiots.

On Monday, the U.N. came out with another majorly depressing assessment (see previous depressing assessment: climate change is going to kill us all). And this time, it’s on biodiversity.

Hundreds of experts from around the world looked at thousands of scientific studies and found that the speed with which we are fucking up the natural world is “unprecedented,” and wrote it all up in a 1,500-page report. The authors looked at what will happen if we continue polluting, clearing forests for agricultural purposes, expanding cities and roads, overhunting, overfishing, mucking up water resources, and spreading invasive species.

The report shows that we’re not just on the precipice of an extinction crisis; it’s already unfolding around us. Here are the scariest takeaways from the summary of the report’s findings (the full report isn’t coming out until later this year):

40 percent of amphibian species (frogs, toads, salamanders, newts — basically all the creatures 6-year-olds love to look at) could be wiped out.
Marine mammals and corals (the kind that form reefs) aren’t in much better shape: one-third of those aquatic species are threatened.
Even the daintiest of God’s creations, like ferns (and their relatives) and dragonflies, aren’t safe from humans. About 10 percent of each category could be wiped out.
Nearly 40 percent of conifers, a category that includes Douglas-firs, cedars, and juniper trees, are under threat. That doesn’t bode well for lovers of Christmas trees.
But Christian-Italians can breathe easy: of the 2,390 bony fishes species assessed, only around 10 percent are threatened. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is safe, for now.

IPBES. Sorry, cycad fans. 

Which portions of the world are to blame for the global loss of biodiversity? Glad you asked. Much like the issue of climate change, the folks who are going to suffer (or are already suffering) from rapid extinctions are not the people who contributed the most to causing the problem.

High-income regions of the world use the most fertilizer, have the highest rates of domestic material consumption and gross domestic product per capita, and, of course, produce the most greenhouse gas emissions.

Compared to the high-income regions, low-income nations extract the least amount of living biomass, produce the least amount of emissions, use the least amount of fertilizer, and are doing the best job at protecting key biodiversity areas (often with the aid of international funds).

Here’s the cherry on top: The catastrophic problems of climate change and loss of biodiversity are occurring in tandem. Rising temperatures are only making it harder for Earth’s threatened plant and animal species to survive. If temperatures rise 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), around 5 percent of species worldwide could kick the can for climate-related reasons.

What’s worse, the report says that most governments aren’t sticking to the global pacts they made to protect the international environmental commons. See? Humans (particularly the wealthy ones) have a delightful tendency to make problems that snowball into bigger problems.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t sign up for a world with a deficit of frogs and a surplus of bony fishes.

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The TL;DR on that report that says we’re killing off everything

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Bad news for the Amazon as Brazil backs out of hosting UN climate talks

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Brazil was set to be the host country for COP25, next year’s crucial United Nation talks to address climate change, but just two months after offering to do so, the country’s officials have reversed their stance.

Brazilian leaders communicated the decision on Monday to Patrícia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Climate Change, just days before the start of COP24, this year’s annual climate conference being held in Katowice, Poland. The Brazilian government blames the change on budget constraints and the ongoing presidential transition process. But others are interpreting the move as yet another sign of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s impending war on the environment.

“This decision is not surprising considering it comes from a leader with proven skepticism towards the reality of climate change, and open animosity towards those working to preserve our climate,” Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, told Grist. Poirier also says he doesn’t buy Brazil’s budget excuse for reversing on hosting the conference. “It is clear that Mr. Bolsonaro’s reactionary political agenda was the decisive factor in this decision.”

Bolsonaro confirmed that he participated in the decision, saying “I recommended to our future minister that we avoid the realization of this event here in Brazil.”

(The United Nations did not immediately reply to Grist’s request for comment.)

Before Bolsonaro’s election, the country seemed eager to host the next round of international climate talks. According to Brazilian news site O Globo, the foreign ministry had said Brazil’s offer reflected “the consensus of Brazilian society on the importance and the urgency of actions that contribute to the fight against climate change.”

But in some ways, the current reversal comes as no surprise. During his campaign, Bolsonaro (a.k.a. The Trump of the Tropics) vowed to jettison from the Paris Climate Agreement — though he’s since backtracked from that promise. Still, he’s been steadfast in his desire to open up the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, to mining, farming and dam building. He’s said he wants to open up the country’s existing indigenous reserves to commercial exploitation. And earlier this month, he chose a new foreign minister that has said he believes climate change is a Marxist plot to help China.

A recent report issued by the Brazilian government found the Amazon has reached its highest levels of deforestation in a decade, thanks to illegal logging and the expansion of agriculture in the area. And there are major concerns that Bolsonaro’s lax environmental policies could push the Amazon past its tipping point as one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.

Brazil withdrawing its offer to host COP25 also carries symbolic weight when you consider the country is the birthplace of global climate talks. The milestone Rio Earth Summit of 1992 set the green agenda for decades to come.

“The image of Brazil is at risk,” said Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental non-governmental organizations, in an interview with the New York Times. “Climate and the environment are the only issues where Brazil is a leader in global terms. We are not leaders in world trade, we are not leaders in a geopolitical sense on security issues. But on climate and environment we are leaders, and we are giving that up.”

The South American country’s decision has left the United Nations scrambling to find a new site for the summit. A new venue for the summit has not yet been determined.

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Bad news for the Amazon as Brazil backs out of hosting UN climate talks

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Here’s what 4 Indigenous Leaders had to say about Brazil’s President-elect

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Even before Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s Presidential race last week, many environmentalists were on high alert. The far-right politician’s positions on agriculture and economic development (he’s gone back and forth on whether he’ll keep environment ministries and agriculture ministries separate) could open up Brazil’s precious rainforests to deforestation and economic exploitation.

But it’s not just the Amazon that’s threatened — the lives of many of Brazil’s indigenous peoples are under siege as well. A little over a week ago, the President-elect signaled he  might backtrack on his campaign promise to leave the Paris climate accord, but only if he gets assurances that Brazil would not have to cede sovereignty to native tribes.

“Indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately from violence,” Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, told Grist. “Under Bolsonaro, we can expect to see a growth in this very alarming trend.”

In the first few days after Bolsonaro’s election, there were reports of a wave of violence against indigenous communities, with pro-Bolsonaro militias allegedly destroying villages and gravely harming individuals.

“It sends signals that the murder and intimidation carried out by actors and gunmen against land defenders will not only be tolerated, but it will be a climate of impunity,” Poirier said.

Here’s what four Brazilian indigenous leaders had to say to Amazon Watch about how Bolsonaro’s election is impacting their communities. These quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Dinamã Tuxá, Coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples (APIB) said: 

This scenario is totally heartbreaking. Bolsonaro has made clear and consistent declarations about ending the titling of indigenous lands, which are completely opposed to our rights. His racist, homophobic, misogynist, fascist discourse shows how Brazilian politics will be in the coming years.

Our fear is that this situation will worsen. He foments hatred and violence against indigenous peoples with a discourse claiming that we are an obstacle for development, ignoring our contributions to environmental balance. We know our titled territories help to climate stability and that our preservation of these ecosystems offers collective benefits.

His discourse gives those who live around indigenous lands the right to practice violence without any sort of accountability. Those who invade indigenous lands and kill our people will be esteemed. He represents an institutionalization of genocide in Brazil.

We will resist his hate by protesting in the streets and by filing lawsuits, despite the fact that the courts have unfortunately not fulfilled their duty to uphold our constitutional rights. We will fight as we have for the last 518 years, waging resistance to guarantee our existence.

Alessandra Korap Munduruku, Coordinator of the Munduruku people’s Pariri Association:

We are very worried. We Munduruku people need our land to be titled. When the President says he will not title one centimeter of indigenous land, it hurts those of us who have long fought to defend our territories from the invasion of loggers and miners. When he talks of ending the ability of [environmental enforcement agency] IBAMA to issue [environmental] fines and prohibits federal police from accompanying their inspection actions we suffer and are scared to even leave our homes.

When the president says he will end human rights, what will happen to us? We cannot be held hostage by fear. We indigenous peoples in the movement need to think of everyone because our struggle is for everyone. We cannot retreat from this challenge but only advance. We must walk together to defend the Amazon, and Mother Earth who is calling for help.

Sônia Guajajara, former Coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples (APIB) and vice-presidential candidate for the PSOL party:

The destructive agenda announced by Jair Bolsonaro is highly aggressive to all those who struggle for justice, especially for the most vulnerable population. We indigenous people have resisted for 518 years to overcome the colonial structure and we will continue to be resolute in our struggle for our right to exist as original peoples. Our work to demarcate our territories will continue to be urgent and we will not desist. This is our struggle!

Luiz Eloy Terena, lawyer for Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples (APIB), said:

In following this election one thing we’ve noted, from the declarations of many indigenous leaders, is that our struggle continues. Indigenous peoples and traditional communities have lived in this resistance for a long [time]. For many years, I’ve monitored the encampments of the Guaraní-Kaiowá and Terena peoples who face violence [on a daily basis] from farmers and their armed agents, who disrespect their rights and can attack at any moment.

For us indigenous peoples this election represents a continuity of our struggle and encourages us to do what we have always done in defense of democracy and our rights. Today, these rights appear more threatened in every space, from our villages to our cities to our institutions.

We understand that this was an electoral process where people voted [Bolsonaro] into power. But he is not simply a presidential candidate. He sharply represents the profile of the majority of Brazilians who see in him their own representation. His discourse of racism, sexism, and violence is very prevalent in the people and especially relates to indigenous peoples, who they do not accept.

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Here’s what 4 Indigenous Leaders had to say about Brazil’s President-elect

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6 tricks Scott Pruitt uses to manipulate the media

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt might just be the most ruthlessly effective member of the Trump administration — much to the ire of environmental activists, who recently launched a #BootPruitt campaign. One of Pruitt’s trademark strategies is trying to tightly control media coverage of himself and his agency, a way to tamp down criticism of his industry-friendly agenda and extreme rollbacks of environmental protections.

Pruitt has lost control of the media narrative in the past week, as numerous outlets have reported on his snowballing ethics scandals. But if he keeps his job — there are reports that President Trump still has his back — you can expect him to double down on his media machinations.

Here are the key ways Pruitt manipulates and hampers the press:

1. Pruitt goes to right-wing news outlets to push his messages out

During his first year as head of the EPA, Pruitt appeared on Fox News, Trump’s favorite network, 16 times — more than twice as often as he appeared on other major cable and broadcast networks combined. Fox hosts and interviewers tend to lob softballs at him and gloss over his numerous controversies and scandals.

Pruitt gives interviews to other conservative outlets, too, from Breitbart News Daily to The Rush Limbaugh Show to the Christian Broadcasting Network. Last month, Pruitt went on conservative talk-radio shows to spread misleading talking points as he attempted to defend his extravagant travel spending.

And when Pruitt announced a plan in March to restrict the kinds of scientific data that can be used in policymaking — a change decried by scientists, environmentalists, and public health advocates — he gave an exclusive interview to conservative news site The Daily Caller about it. The resulting article painted the shift in a positive light, of course.

2. Pruitt gives interviews to generalists instead of environmental reporters

Pruitt does grant some interviews to mainstream news outlets, but when he does it’s often with political reporters or generalists instead of reporters on the environmental beat who would know the right tough questions to ask.

For instance, in February, Pruitt appeared on The New York Times’ podcast The Daily. The interview was largely light and fluffy, letting Pruitt spout his talking points with little pushback, including a false claim that Congress would have to change the law in order for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. After the interview, it fell to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport to point out that the Supreme Court had already granted authority to the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Too bad she wasn’t the one who conducted the interview. The following week, when another Times environmental reporter, Lisa Friedman, asked for a comment from Pruitt for a piece on his views on climate science, an EPA spokesperson simply referred her to the interview with The Daily.

The EPA administrator sat for another soft interview with a Washington Post political reporter that was published in the Post’s political newsletter The Daily 202. The resulting piece quoted Pruitt defending his enforcement record — “I don’t hang with polluters; I prosecute them” — and praising Trump for his “tremendous ideas.”

Contrast that with what happened when Pruitt gave a rare interview to two Post reporters, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin, who’ve been doggedly covering his agency. They produced a substantive article on how Pruitt has been shifting the EPA to serve the interests of regulated companies; quotes from Pruitt in the piece are interspersed with quotes from experts and with reporting on Pruitt’s moves to roll back environmental protections and enforcement.

3. Pruitt’s EPA withholds basic information from the press and the public

Under Pruitt, the EPA has become extraordinarily secretive.

Unlike previous EPA administrators, Pruitt has refused to publicly release his full schedule in anything close to real time. Under his leadership, the EPA has blocked reporters from attending events where Pruitt speaks, even threatening to call the police to remove them. Most recently, on April 3, the EPA blocked numerous reporters from attending an event where he announced the loosening of auto fuel economy standards, enabling Pruitt to avoid hard questions.

It’s so hard to get information out of the agency that the Society of Environmental Journalists sent the EPA public affairs office a letter in January asking for such fundamental things as open press briefings, responses to reporters’ inquiries, and distribution of press releases to everyone who requests them.

As New York Times reporter Friedman said in October, “Covering the EPA is like covering the CIA. It is so secretive. It is so difficult even to get basic information.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the agency have soared under Pruitt.

4. Pruitt’s EPA sends reporters articles by climate deniers instead of useful information

Over the last month, the EPA has sent out at least four “press releases” that did nothing more than promote articles or opinion pieces by right-wing figures that painted Pruitt in a positive light, as ThinkProgress reported.

The most eye-popping press release was headlined “The Hill: Scott Pruitt is leading the EPA toward greatness.” It pointed to a fawning opinion piece cowritten by the head of the Heartland Institute, a notorious climate-denial think tank.

But perhaps the most vexing to reporters was a press release that promoted the aforementioned Daily Caller article on Pruitt restricting the EPA’s use of scientific data. The agency sent it out in lieu of an informative press release and otherwise refused to answer reporters’ questions about the action. This prompted the National Association of Science Writers to send a letter of protest to the head of the EPA press office, calling on her to “take steps immediately to prevent this unprofessional and unethical behavior from occurring again.” The Society of Environmental Journalists followed up with a similar letter of its own.

5. Pruitt repeats misleading talking points

Unlike his boss, Pruitt is disciplined and on-message. In interviews, he turns again and again to the same tightly scripted talking points, many of which are misleading.

Like this one: “We’ve seen an 18 percent reduction in our CO2 footprint from 2000 to 2014. We’re at pre-1994 levels,” Pruitt told Fox News Sunday in June, while defending Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. It’s one of Pruitt’s favorite lines. He’s repeated it ad nauseum during his 13 months at the EPA.

When he spouts this statistic, Pruitt is essentially bragging that the U.S. has already done a lot to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. That might sound good on the surface, but Pruitt’s claim is misleading — he ignores the fact that emissions went down in part because of Obama-era policies that Pruitt and others in the Trump administration are now undoing. It’s also just a really weird thing to boast about if you’re a climate denier like Pruitt.

Does Pruitt actually think it’s a good thing that the U.S. reduced carbon dioxide emissions? Does that mean he acknowledges that CO2 is a dangerous pollutant? Does he then think it would be good for the U.S. to continue reducing CO2 emissions? Is he aware that CO2 emissions are projected to rise this year?

These are follow-up questions that an interviewer who’s knowledgeable about climate change might ask, but so far we haven’t seen any such pushback. No wonder Pruitt keeps repeating the line.

6. Pruitt’s EPA retaliates against journalists

Under Pruitt, the EPA’s press office has taken the unprecedented step of personally attacking reporters whose work the leadership dislikes. In September, the office issued a press release bashing Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker over a story he cowrote. “Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey,” the release read. “Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story.” The EPA then dropped Biesecker from its email press list.

The agency’s press office has also attacked New York Times reporter Eric Lipton, who’s done deep-dive investigative reporting into Pruitt’s EPA. In August, the office put out a press release that accused him of reporting “false facts.” In October, Liz Bowman, head of the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs, gave a snarky reply after Lipton requested information on agency actions, accusing Lipton of having a “continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

The bottom line

When Pruitt gets more positive media coverage for himself and the EPA, or at least less negative coverage, it can sway public opinion in favor of his right-wing agenda and make it easier for him to continue eviscerating environmental protections. His successes then help him curry favor with oil companies, the Koch network, and other monied interests that could fund a future Pruitt campaign for senator, governor, or even president. After all, the EPA administrator is notoriously ambitious.

If Pruitt does ascend higher, you can expect to see a lot more anti-regulatory fervor and a lot more media manipulation and maltreatment.

Lisa Hymas is director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America. She was previously a senior editor at Grist.

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6 tricks Scott Pruitt uses to manipulate the media

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Republican Congressman on Suspected Islamic Radicals: "Kill Them All"

Mother Jones

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In response to the London terror attack, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) had an extreme proposal: kill anyone suspected of being an Islamic radical.

On his campaign Faceboook page, Higgins, a former police officer, posted this message:

The free world…all of Christendom…is at war with Islamic horror. Not one penny of American treasure should be granted to any nation who harbors these heathen animals. Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter. Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identity them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.

The post went up early on Sunday morning. On Saturday evening, suspected terrorists killed seven people during an attack on London Bridge. ISIS has claimed credit for these murders.

With his declaration that Christendom is “at war with Islamic horror,” Higgins was embracing a theme of the far right: the fight against extremist jihadists is part of a fundamental clash between Christian society and Islam. And in this Facebook post, he was calling for killing not just terrorists found guilty of heinous actions, but anyone suspected of such an act. He did not explain how the United States could determine how to identify radicalized Islamists in order to deny them entry to the United States. It was unclear whether his proposal to deny any assistance to any nation that harbors “these heathen animals” would apply to England, France, Indonesia, Spain, and other nations where jihadist cells have committed horrific acts of violence.

Higgins office refused to allow a Mother Jones reporter to speak to a spokesman for the congressman. But in an email, his spokesman confirmed the Facebook post was authentic.

In late January, Higgins delivered a fiery floor speech attacking Democrats and the “liberal media” for opposing President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban. He declared that “radical Islamic horror has gripped the world and…unbelievably…been allowed into our own nation with wanton disregard.”

Shortly before running for Congress, Higgins resigned from his post as the public information officer of the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, where he had earned a reputation as the “Cajun John Wayne” for his tough-talking CrimeStopper videos. Higgins abruptly quit after his boss, the sheriff, ordered him to tone down his unprofessional comments. “I repeatedly told him to stop saying things like, ‘You have no brain cells,’ or making comments that were totally disrespectful and demeaning,” the sheriff said.

“I don’t do well reined in,” Higgins noted at the time. “Although I love and respect my sheriff, I must resign.”

Update: Higgins’ campaign spokesman, Chris Comeaux, told Mother Jones in an email: “Rep. Higgins is referring to terrorists. He’s advocating for hunting down and killing all of the terrorists. This is an idea all of America & Britain should be united behind.”

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Republican Congressman on Suspected Islamic Radicals: "Kill Them All"

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Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build "God’s Kingdom"

Mother Jones

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It’s Christmastime in Holland, Michigan, and the northerly winds from Lake Macatawa bring a merciless chill to the small city covered in deep snow. The sparkly lights on the trees in downtown luxury storefronts illuminate seasonal delicacies from the Netherlands, photos and paintings of windmills and tulips, wooden shoes, and occasional “Welkom Vrienden” (Welcome Friends) signs.

Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left

Dutch immigrants from a conservative Protestant sect chose this “little Holland” in western Michigan more than 150 years ago in part for its isolation. They wanted to keep “American” influences away from their people, and their orthodox ways of running their community. Many of their traditions have lasted generations. Until recently, Holland restaurants couldn’t sell alcohol on Sundays. Residents are not allowed to yell or whistle between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. If city officials decide that a fence or a shed signals decay, they might tear it down, and mail the owner a bill. Grass clippings longer than eight inches have to be removed and composted, and snow must be shoveled as soon as it lands on the streets. Most people say that rules like these help keep Holland prosperous, with low unemployment, low crime rates, good city services, excellent schools, and Republicans at almost every government post. It’s also where President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos, grew up.

Sitting in his spacious downtown office suite, Arlyn Lanting is eager to talk about his longtime friend, who will begin confirmation hearings Tuesday to become the nation’s top-ranking education official. DeVos is married to Amway scion Dick DeVos (whose father, Richard DeVos, is worth more than $5 billion, according to Forbes) and is seen as a controversial choice due to her track record of supporting vouchers for private, religious schools; right-wing Christian groups like the Foundation for Traditional Values, which has pushed to soften the separation of church and state; and organizations like Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has championed the privatization of the education system.

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos at a January rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan Paul Sancya/AP

But Lanting, a tall, 75-year-old businessman, investor, and local philanthropist, is quick to wave off the notion that DeVos has it out for traditional public schools. “Betsy is not against public schools,” he says. “She does believe that teachers in charter and private schools are much more likely to lead the way toward better education—the kind that will actually prepare students for our current times and move us away from standardization and testing. But Dick and Betsy have given money to public schools, too.”

Teachers Are “Shocked and Worried” About the Future for Kids and Schools

Lanting is a warm and generous host who’s quick to point out his favorite Bible verse, painted right there on his wall: “‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the Truth’ (3 John 4).” He and Betsy were both raised in the tradition of the Christian Reformed Church—a little-known, conservative Dutch Calvinist denomination whose roots reach back to the city’s founders. They went to the same grade school in the city’s parallel private school system, the Holland Christian Schools, which was first established by members of the church. Like many people I met in Holland, Lanting wasn’t a Trump supporter initially—he voted for Ben Carson in the primaries—but he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton, whom he calls “a professional spin doctor.” “Trump is much more likely,” Lanting says, “to bring Christ into the world.”

For deeply devout people like Lanting and DeVos, that’s no small detail, and education plays a key role in that mission. Since her nomination, DeVos hasn’t said much publicly about her views on education—or whether she plans to defend the separation of church and state in public schools. (DeVos declined Mother Jones‘ request for an interview, but a Trump transition team spokeswoman replied in an email, “Mrs. DeVos believes in the legal doctrine of the separation of church and state.”) However, in a 2001 interview for “The Gathering,” a group focused on advancing Christian faith through philanthropy, she and her husband offered a rare public glimpse of their views. Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on philanthropic dollars—rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers—Betsy DeVos replied: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…versus what is currently being spent every year on education in this country…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.”

Trump’s Billionaire Education Secretary Has Been Trying to Gut Public Schools for Years

Said Dick DeVos: “As we look at many communities in our country, the church has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity…It is certainly our hope that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.”

Although the DeVoses have rarely commented on how their religious views affect their philanthropy and political activism, their spending speaks volumes. Mother Jones has analyzed the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation’s tax filings from 2000 to 2014, as well as the 2001 to 2014 filings from her parents’ charitable organization, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. (Betsy DeVos was vice president of the Prince Foundation during those years.) During that period, the DeVoses spent nearly $100 million in philanthropic giving, and the Princes spent $70 million. While Dick and Betsy DeVos have donated large amounts to hospitals, health research, and arts organizations, these records show an overwhelming emphasis on funding Christian schools and evangelical missions, and conservative, free-market think tanks, like the Acton Institute and the Mackinac Center, that want to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education.

The couple’s philanthropic record makes clear that they view choice and competition as the best mechanism to improve America’s education system. Overall, their foundation gave $5.2 million from 1999 to 2014 to charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but governed by appointed boards and often run by private companies with varying degrees of oversight by state institutions. Some $4.8 million went to a small school they founded, the West Michigan Aviation Academy. (Flying is one of Dick’s passions.) Their next biggest beneficiary, New Urban Learning—an operator that dropped its charter after teachers began to unionize—received $350,000; big-name charter operators Success Academy and KIPP Foundation received $25,000 and $500, respectively.

America’s Schools Desperately Need Black Teachers. Why Are We Driving Them Away?

Meanwhile, when it comes to traditional public schools run by the districts and accountable to democratically elected school boards—the ones that 86 percent of American students attend—the DeVoses were far less generous: Less than 1 percent of their funding ($59,750) went to support these schools. (To be fair, few philanthropists donate directly to underfunded public school districts.)

But the DeVoses’ foundation giving shows the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, Betsy DeVos said that while charters are “a very valid choice,” they “take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2,396,525 to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools—a reflection of the DeVoses’ lifelong dedication to building “God’s Kingdom” through education.

Most people I meet in Holland tell me that it’s hard to understand the DeVos and Prince families without learning something about the history of Dutch Americans in western Michigan. In the mid-1800s, a group of mostly poor farmers, known as the “Seceders,” rebelled against the Dutch government when it tried to modernize the state Calvinist church, including changing the songbooks used during worship and ending discriminatory laws against Catholics and Jews. In 1846, an intensely devout Calvinist priest named A.C. van Raalte led several hundred settlers from the Netherlands to the United States.

Those who ended up in western Michigan overcame hunger and disease to clear thickly wooded, swampy land with much colder winters and deeper snow than their native Netherlands. In the city of Holland, they built a virtual replica of their Dutch villages. And just like back home, their church was essentially their government, influencing almost every part of farmers’ lives.

Ten years after first Seceders came to Holland, one-third of the Dutch community broke off from the Reformed Church of America and created the Christian Reformed Church. What really solidified this split were disagreements over education, according to James D. Bratt, professor emeritus at Calvin College and author of Dutch Calvinism in Modern America. Members who stayed in the Reformed Church of America supported public schools; Christian Reformed Church members believed that education is solely the responsibility of families—and explicitly not the government—and sent their kids to religious schools.

It was the Christian Reformed Church that opened Holland Christian Schools and Calvin College in nearby Grand Rapids. Betsy DeVos, 59, is an alum of both and was raised in 1960s and 1970s in the Christian Reformed tradition. (Her brother, Erik Prince, is a former Navy SEAL and the founder of Blackwater, the private-security contractor infamous for its role during the Iraq War.) During those years, that often meant growing up in a home that forbade dancing, movies, drinking, working on Sundays, or even participating in the city’s May Tulip Festival, with its Dutch folk costumes and dancing in wooden shoes. Holland Christian Schools’ ban on teaching evolution wasn’t lifted until 1991, according to Larry Ten Harmsel, the author of Dutch in Michigan. (DeVos left the Christian Reformed Church about a decade ago and has been a member of the evangelical Mars Hill Bible Church.)

When the 1960s cultural revolution rocked the nation, many members of the Christian Reformed Church—including Betsy’s parents, who would become one of the richest couples in Michigan thanks to Edgar’s automotive parts company—allied themselves with the evangelical movement. While the Princes would go on to contribute to some of the country’s most powerful far-right religious groups, like the Family Research Council, Betsy and Dick DeVos eventually focused on funding education reform groups and think tanks pushing for vouchers, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars through their foundation to organizations seeking to privatize education and blur the separation of church and state in public schools, including:

Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty: Betsy DeVos once served on the board of this Grand Rapids-based think tank, which endorses a blend of religious conservatism and unrestrained capitalism. It is headed by a Catholic priest, Fr. Robert Sirico, who has argued that welfare programs should be replaced by religious charities. In a paper titled “America’s Public Schools: Crisis and Cure,” a former Acton advisory board member named Ronald Nash wrote: “No real progress towards improving American education can occur as long as 90 percent of American children are being taught in government schools that ignore moral and religious beliefs.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation contributed $1,289,750 from 2000 to 2014, and the Prince Foundation donated at least $550,000.

The Foundation for Traditional Values: Led by former priest James Muffett, the organization is the education arm of Citizens for Traditional Values, a political action group whose mission is preserving “the influence of faith and family as the great foundation of American freedom embodied in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” On the website dedicated to Muffett’s seminars, a page devoted to a lecture titled “The Greatest Story Never Told” states: “There was a time when schoolchildren were taught the truth about the Christian influence in our foundations but no longer. Our past has been hijacked by a secular philosophy, and we have lost the original vision, ideas, and principles of our forefathers who gave birth to the greatest free nation the world has ever seen.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation contributed $232,390 from 1999 to 2014.

Focus on the Family: Both the DeVoses and the Princes have been key supporters of Focus on the Family, which was founded by the influential evangelical leader James Dobson. In a 2002 radio broadcast, Dobson called on parents in some states to to pull their kids out of public schools, calling the curriculum “godless and immoral” and suggesting that Christian teachers should also leave public schools: “I couldn’t be in an organization that’s supporting that kind of anti-Christian nonsense.” Dobson also has distributed a set of history lessons that argue that “separating Christianity from government is virtually impossible and would result in unthinkable damage to the nation and its people.” The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave $275,000 to Focus on the Family from 1999 to 2001 but hasn’t donated since; it gave an additional $35,760 to the group’s Michigan and DC affiliates from 2001 to 2010. The Prince Foundation donated $5.2 million to Focus on the Family and $275,000 to its Michigan affiliate from 2001 to 2014. (It also gave $6.1 million to the Family Research Council, which has fought against same-sex marriage and anti-bullying programs—and is listed as an “anti-LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The FRC used to be a division of Focus on the Family before it became an independent nonprofit, with Dobson serving on its board, in 1992.)

Meanwhile, the DeVos clan is perhaps best known for aggressive political activism against organized labor. A 2014 Mother Jones investigation revealed that the DeVoses had invested at least $200 million in various right-wing causes: think thanks, media outlets, political committees, and advocacy groups. In 2007, coming off Dick’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in their home state of Michigan, the DeVoses focused their advocacy and philanthropy on controversial right-to-work legislation that outlawed contracts requiring all employees in unionized workplaces to pay dues for union representation. Back in 2007, such a proposal in a union-heavy state like Michigan was considered a “right-wing fantasy,” but thanks to the DeVoses’ aggressive strategy and funding, the bill became law by 2012.

Right-to-work laws, now on the books in 26 states, have been a major blow to the labor movement—including teachers’ unions, the most powerful lobby for traditional public schools and opponents of charter schools (whose instructors often aren’t unionized). Teachers in Michigan are not allowed to strike; when educators in Detroit demanded a forensic audit of their district’s murky finances and protested classrooms plagued by mold, roaches, and rodents, they used sick days to make their point. A month later, Betsy DeVos wrote a Detroit News op-ed arguing that teachers shouldn’t be allowed to stage sick-outs, either.

DeVos in 1992 Detroit Free Press/Zuma

Which brings us back to Michigan, “school choice,” charter schools, and vouchers. Betsy DeVos has spent at least two decades pushing vouchers—i.e., public funding to pay for private and religious schools—to the center of the Republican Party’s education agenda, thanks in large part to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based think tank.

In the mid-’90s, Mackinac leadership suggested a long-term strategy on how to make the unpopular voucher policies more palatable for the mainstream America. Its then-senior vice president, Joseph Overton, developed what became known as the Overton Window, a theory of how a policy initially considered extreme might over time be normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion. Education policies were placed on a liberal-conservative continuum, with the far left representing “Compulsory indoctrination in government schools” and the far right, “No government schools.”

Charter schools became the main tool of voucher advocates to introduce school choice to public school supporters, with the aim to nudge public opinion closer to supporting tax credits to pay for private schools. Since about 80 percent of American students outside the public system attend religious schools, “universal choice”—or allowing taxpayer money to follow individual students to any private or public school—could eventually mean financing thousands of Christian schools.

In Michigan, Detroit has been at the heart of the charter push, which began in the early ’90s. In 1996, former Metro Times reporter Curt Guyette showed how the Prince Foundation, as well as the foundation run by Dick DeVos’ parents, funded a carefully orchestrated campaign to label Detroit’s public schools as failing—and pushed for charters and “universal educational choice” as a better alternative. While Betsy DeVos has not called for an end to traditional public schools, she has written about the need to “retire” and “replace” Detroit’s public school system and pressed for aggressively expanding charter schools and vouchers. (In 2000, Dick and Betsy DeVos helped underwrite a ballot initiative to expand the use of vouchers in Michigan and lost badly.)

Detroit’s schools—where 84 percent of students are black and 80 percent are poor—have been in steady decline since charter schools started proliferating: Public school test scores in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained the worst among large cities since 2009. In June, the New York Times published a scathing investigation of the city’s school district, which has the second-biggest share of students in charters in America. (New Orleans is No. 1.) Reporter Kate Zernike concluded that lax oversight by state and insufficiently regulated growth—including too many agencies that are allowed to open new charter schools—contributed to a system with “lots of choice, with no good choice.”

Statewide, about 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, a much higher share than anywhere else in the country. And two years ago, DeVos fought aggressively against legislation that would stop failing charter schools from expanding, and she and her husband were the biggest financial backers of the effort to oppose any new state oversight of charters.

“School choice” is now accepted by nearly two-thirds of Americans—although 69 percent oppose using public funding for private schools. Donald Trump’s signature education proposal calls for dedicating $20 billion in federal money to promote “school choice” to help families move away from what the he has called our “failing government schools” and instead choose private, religious, or charter schools. With most states under Republican leadership and some major charter school proponents signaling their willingness to work with the Trump administration, the stage is set for an aggressive push to lift state caps on charter schools (26 states have some kind of charter cap) and expand voucher programs (13 states and the District of Columbia have active programs). In 2008, then-DC Public Schools chancellor and staunch charter school advocate Michelle Rhee—whom Trump also considered for the position of education chief—refused to express support for vouchers. By 2013, she’d made her support public.

It’s hard to tell how many more charter advocates will support—or simply overlook—the inclusion of vouchers for private schools in “choice” policies, but one thing is clear: The prospects for an aggressive policy push for “universal choice”—including funding more religious schools with taxpayer money—have never been better.

Betsy and Dick DeVos and three of their children at Michigan’s Republican conventions in 2006 Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/Zuma

On my last day in Holland, a retired public school teacher, Cathy Boote, is giving me a tour of the city she has called home for 37 years. Dressed in a black cashmere sweater and a white winter jacket, Boote is a self-described moderate Republican and teachers’ union member who went to public schools and later taught art in the nearby West Ottawa public school district. In her close to four decades of working in public schools, she saw how the decline of the automotive industry, and the hollowing out of the middle class, affected poor and working-class kids she taught more than any other factor. “When parents have to work longer hours, more jobs, and get paid less, there is more stress at home,” Boote reflected. “That means less time to read and do homework, more time spent watching TV and online rather than learning.”

“Betsy’s father, Edgar Prince, is considered the patron saint of Holland,” Boote says as our truck rolls over heated asphalt—a unique underground grid of tubes circulates hot water beneath the streets and melts snowflakes just as they touch down. It was Prince who helped bring this innovative system here, suggesting the heated streets in 1988 and forking over $250,000 to cover nearly a quarter of the cost. Like Boote, most Hollanders I talked to credit Prince’ vision for the city’s transformation in the ’90s to a tourist destination.

It was this business acumen, and a drive to take care of “our people,” that turned Prince into the wealthiest man in Michigan. In 1965, Prince left his job as chief engineer at Buss Machine Works after workers decided to unionize. He opened his own company that eventually specialized in auto-parts manufacturing and became one of the biggest employers in Holland. When Prince Automotive was sold for $1.35 billion in 1997, two years after his death, some 4,500 former employees received a combined $80 million in bonuses. “Most people here feel that you build your own family. You don’t need a union to build a competing family,” Boote explains, adjusting her glasses. “You treat your employees well and they don’t need to complain. Complaining, protesting is bad. You work hard and you don’t complain.”

Boote’s truck takes a sharp turn into the predominantly Latino section of town, with large, free-standing Victorian cottages, fenceless yards, and ancient trees. Most kids in this neighborhood go to public schools. In the two decades since school choice was implemented, white student enrollment in Holland’s public schools has plummeted 60 percent, according to Bridge Magazine. Latino students are now the face of the system, and 70 percent of all students are poor, more than double the district’s poverty rate when choice began. The Holland Christian Schools are predominantly white.

We leave downtown and drive along Lake Macatawa for about three miles before parking in front of a huge, castlelike mansion. This is Betsy and Dick DeVos’ summer home—a three-story, 22,000-square-foot estate that the Holland Sentinel once boasted was the the biggest in the city, if not the county.

As we look out at the stone-and-shingle house, Boote reflects on how most people around here—her family, Betsy DeVos’ family—grew up among proud Dutch immigrants who overcame deep poverty. DeVos went on to attend a small, elite, mostly white private religious school, and a similar college. She married into a rich dynasty.

“‘Look at us. God has given to us. I can fix this. All you have to do is be like me.’ You can understand how you might think that way, if you grew up here,” Boote says later, as we take one final glance at the mansion over its tall, iron gate. “If you come from the small, sheltered, privileged environment of Holland, you are most likely going to have a very limited worldview—including how to fix education.”

Holland, Michigan, in summer Craig Sterken/iStock


Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build "God’s Kingdom"

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What the Heck Is a Placebo Anyway?

Mother Jones

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Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century German physician, believed a mysterious force he called “animal magnetism” could be used to cure people. Mesmer’s theory was that there was invisible fluid in the body that could be controlled by magnetized objects and that disease was a result of “obstacles” to those fluids’ flow. To fight the disease, Mesmer used hypnotic procedures on his patients. At times, he would give people water he had “mesmerized” in order to cure them.

While Mesmer claimed some success with patients, he had critics. One was Benjamin Franklin, who saw Mesmer’s healing techniques for what they were: placebos. In modern medicine, a placebo is a fake medical treatment used to test out the results of real medications. The placebo effect is, essentially, the body’s response (in some instances, a very real response) to this fake treatment. In other words, Mesmer’s medications weren’t scientifically sound, but they may have made patients feel better through the power of suggestion.

Award-winning science writer Erik Vance has spent a lot of time thinking about the placebo effect. In his book, Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal, Vance explores placebos, hypnosis, and how beliefs influence bodily responses to pain. “Placebos and beliefs generally is so much a part of our lives,” he tells Kishore Hari on a recent episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. “It has an amazing power to change our bodies.”

Vance has a unique perspective on the topic: He was raised in a Christian Science household and saw a doctor for the first time when he was 18 years old. “Belief was basically my health care,” he says.

Today, placebos are used by researchers to test whether drugs are actually effective in treating medical conditions—that is, whether patients who are taking an experimental medication see better results than patients who just think they are taking one. For some conditions—Parkinson’s disease, for instance—placebos can actually be an effective treatment.

It’s hard to figure out what the precise mechanisms of the placebo effect are and how they work. But as Vance explains, we now know that they often involve real chemicals produced by the body—real drugs from your “internal pharmacy.” Some of these chemicals are used by the brain to make sure that your expectation meets reality. When expectation doesn’t meet reality, the brain steps in and forces it to fit. Parkinson’s is caused by a lack of dopamine, a chemical that, among other things, is involved in reward processing in our brains. “Expectation drives placebos,” Vance explained to National Geographic. “And dopamine is a chemical that’s very responsive to our expectations. Parkinson’s happens to be a deficiency in the very chemical that’s very important in placebo effects and rewards.”

But while the mind is powerful, it can’t do everything. Vance says there are rules at play. Many serious diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, don’t respond well to sugar pills—patients need actual medicine that has been proven more effective than placebos. “There are some places where the role of the mind to affect the body is profound,” says Vance, “and other places where it is not.”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

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What the Heck Is a Placebo Anyway?

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What Is Bernie Sanders’ Role in the Democratic Party?

Mother Jones

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As Democrats point fingers in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprise win last week, Bernie Sanders is taking aim at one culprit: the Democratic Party. “One of the reasons that he won is, in my view, a failure of the Democratic Party that must be rectified,” Sanders told a cheering crowd at a Thursday rally on Capitol Hill convened by his political action committee and a coalition of progressive advocacy groups.

Sanders, though, is opting to try to change the party from without rather than within. Although the self-identified democratic socialist just secured a leadership post in the party, as its outreach director, he will continue to serve in the Senate as an independent. “The real action to transform America won’t take place on Capitol Hill,” Sanders said Thursday morning at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, according to The Hill. “It will be in the grassroots America among millions struggling economically and young people.”

He added, “I initially understand my role to be to get those people into the political process to demand the US Congress and government and president represent all of the people and not just those on top. I’m excited about it, but how we go about it, I don’t know.”

Sanders’ party affiliation didn’t seem to matter much to supporters at the rally. “Is he an independent?” said Greg Hamilton, 23, who works for a group advocating criminal sentencing reform for youth offenders. “Is he a Democrat? Like, I could care less. I know that he represents what I want.” Hamilton voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary but for Clinton last week. “She would’ve been a whole heckuva lot better than Trump,” he said.

Sanders and Trump actually shared some populist messages on the campaign trail, including their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Clinton initially backed. But Lynette Raudner, a 31-year-old attendee of the rally, wasn’t impressed. “Do you really know where Donald Trump stands on trade?” asked Raudner, who volunteered for the Clinton campaign but could not vote because she was born in South Africa and is awaiting her citizenship. “If his message is to not have the TPP, then yeah, I’m glad that we have something in common, but I don’t know if that’s really the case.”

So where do Sanders and his movement go from here? His supporters who have responded to his message have no intention of giving up. Randle Edwards, 82, a retired law professor, said Sanders should focus his efforts on mobilizing his extensive donor network to regain a Democratic majority in the Senate in 2018. Edwards gives Sanders credit for his consistent message on wealth distribution, equal rights, and abortion. He added, “I’ve been waiting for Bernie Sanders for 50 years.”


What Is Bernie Sanders’ Role in the Democratic Party?

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Jon Stewart makes late-night TV great again

Your Moment of Zen

Jon Stewart makes late-night TV great again

By on Jul 22, 2016Share

He’s baaaack!

American hero Jon Stewart emerged from his bunker Thursday to join his old pal Stephen Colbert on The Late Show.

Looking fresh out of survivalist training, Stewart gave us much-missed commentary on this week’s Republican National Convention and Roger Ailes’ exit from Fox News.

He had one message for Donald Trump, and the machinery that nominated him: “I see your bullshit.”

Either Lumpy and friends are lying about being bothered by thin-skinned, authoritarian, less-than-Christian readers-of-prompter being president, or they don’t care, as long as it’s their thin-skinned prompter authoritarian tyrant narcissist. You just want that person to give you your country back, because you feel that you are this country’s rightful owner. The only problem with that: This country isn’t yours. You don’t own it.

There was plenty of BS like that in Trump’s address to the RNC.

CBS censors were less than pleased with Stewart, but the crowd loved it. Watch the segment above.

Election Guide ★ 2016Making America Green AgainOur experts weigh in on the real issues at stake in this electionGet Grist in your inbox

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Jon Stewart makes late-night TV great again

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Bill Nye inadvertently played a role in creating Noah’s Ark

Bill Nye inadvertently played a role in creating Noah’s Ark

By on Jul 11, 2016Share

Bill Nye may not believe in Noah’s ark, but that didn’t stop him from visiting it.

Nye was one of the first visitors to Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park that opened in Williamstown, Kentucky last week. The park’s capstone feature is a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark — apparently there to prove that two of every living thing on Earth could totally have fit on a boat. Totally.

Funding for the new ark came, in part, thanks to Nye himself: In 2014, funding for the $100 million project was quickly running out, but after Nye debated the park’s creator — fundamentalist Christian Ken Ham — on evolution, donations came pouring in. The park was saved.

Alas, the Science Guy was not dissuaded by his visit. “This could be just a charming piece of Americana” Nye told the Washington Post, but this “guy promotes so very strongly that climate change is not a serious problem, that humans are not causing it, that some deity will see to it that everything is ok.”

Ham, for his part, doesn’t seem too concerned about climate change, but he did urge his Facebook fans to “pray for Bill Nye.”

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Bill Nye inadvertently played a role in creating Noah’s Ark

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