Editorial Roundup: United States

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

Jan. 15

The Washington Post on the handling of classified documents

It will be up to the two special counsels to investigate and weigh the handling of secret documents by President Biden and former President Donald Trump. But the current questions should not obscure an enormous problem that has been festering for decades and threatens national security, democracy and accountability: The classification system for managing secrets is overwhelmed and desperately needs repair.

Too much national security information is classified, and too little declassified. For years, officials have stamped documents “secret” in a lowest-common denominator system that did not penalize over-classification and made declassification difficult and time-consuming. For example, in November, a 2004 interview of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney with the 9/11 Commission was released to the public. It should not have taken 18 years.

A House Republican overseeing national security put it this way: “The United States today attempts to shield an immense and growing body of secrets using an incomprehensibly complex system of classifications and safeguard requirements. As a result, no one can say with any degree of certainty how much is classified, how much needs to be declassified, or whether the nation’s real secrets can be adequately protected in a system so bloated, it often does not distinguish between the critically important and the economically irrelevant. This much we know: There are too many secrets.” That was Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) speaking 18 years ago, and the situation is worse today.

Over-classification is counterproductive, making it harder for agencies to function, draining budgets and eroding public confidence. Agencies put their best people to work on the most urgent problems, and declassification is a low priority. Now comes a “tsunami,” as the Public Interest Declassification Board warned two years ago: an explosion of digital information. Yet management of classified materials “largely follows established analog and paper-based models.” The board suggested in a blog post that the Freedom of Information Act backlog for records at the George W. Bush Presidential Library “will take a generation to process. This is not acceptable in our democracy.”

A good start would be to simplify the classification process into two tiers, “secret” and “top secret,” eliminating the lower “confidential” level, while protecting those secrets that need special handling. At the same time, the federal board outlined a vision for a modernized classification system that would utilize the tools of big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud storage and retrieval. The idea of automation gives some people pause, but increasingly it seems to make good sense; the mountain of data is already unmanageable.

A panel of government experts met recently at the Hudson Institute and recommended using more technology to assist human decisions for classification and declassification, noting that “the growing volume of classified records already exceeds the ability of humans alone to process them.”

That’s a wake-up call. The whole system needs to be fixed, and its dysfunction should not be ignored for another decade.

ONLINE: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/01/16/biden-trump-document-scandals-over-classified/

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Jan. 14

The New York Times on South Africa and climate change

South Africa generates 80% of its electricity by burning coal, more than any other industrialized nation. Some 200,000 people are directly employed by the coal mines, coal transports and coal-fired power plants that dot the flatlands east of Johannesburg, but the prosperity of the rest of the nation also rests on a foundation of black rock.

Now, the South African government, with the help of the United States and European nations, is embarking on an audacious plan to quit coal without undermining economic growth. If it works, the proposed transition to solar and wind power could fuel faster growth and create a template for coal-dependent nations to confront climate change. This is a significant opportunity, and it deserves support and attention.

The United States has committed more than $1 billion as part of an $8.5 billion international aid package to catalyze South Africa’s shift to renewable energy, and, after two years of talks about the details, the government in Pretoria is to deliver a plan in February for carrying it out.

The proposed aid package is part of a broader shift in the international response to climate change. Windy talk about the necessity for wealthy countries to help less wealthy countries is finally turning tangible. In November, a group of nations, including the United States, committed $20 billion for a similar partnership with Indonesia, then made a $15.5 million commitment to Vietnam in December. Talks are underway with other nations, including Senegal and India.

America’s own response to climate change remains inadequate, and Americans are suffering as a result, but even if the United States stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow — magically and completely — it wouldn’t much impede the march of climate change. The country needs to help the rest of the world burn less fossil fuel, too. South Africa is a promising place to start.

South Africa needs more electricity. The country’s coal-fired power plants are regularly overwhelmed by demand, forcing the national power company, Eskom, to impose rolling blackouts. The blackouts were worse than ever last year, leaving millions of customers in major cities without power for hours at a time, disrupting the economy and slowing growth. To generate more electricity, Eskom is completing two coal-burning power plants that will be among the world’s largest, projects that have been financed in part by billions of dollars in World Bank loans.

Most leaders in South Africa’s government regard those plants as the end of an era. Climate change is taking a growing toll on the country. Like many countries that are far from the equator, South Africa is experiencing drastic changes in temperature, and it has been plagued by both droughts and flooding.

Many of the country’s existing coal-fired power plants need to be replaced in the coming years, and the rapid decline in the cost of wind and solar power generation means that renewable energy can be substituted for coal at relatively little additional cost. Last year, the country shut down the first of those older power stations. It plans to build a solar and wind farm on the site — once again with financing provided by the World Bank.

The international aid package now under discussion with the United States and European partners is intended to accelerate the energy transition. Under the South African government’s current plans, which seek to ease the price of electricity during the transition, the country’s power plants still would produce 3.9 gigatons of carbon between now and 2050. A South African consultancy, Meridian Economics, estimated in a 2020 report that a faster transition could prevent roughly half of those emissions.

The South African government has estimated that it will require about $98 billion over the next five years to start a faster transition — and several times more to finish the work. The $8.5 billion in aid, which represents only a small fraction of that total, is meant to help South Africa raise the rest.

Foreign aid can support investments in infrastructure that are less attractive to private investors. For example, South Africa needs to build transmission lines to connect the best sites for generating renewable energy with the people who need electricity. A study of a similar effort in Chile, completed in 2019, found new transmission lines led to an increase of 51% in solar generation, while sharply reducing prices for urban households.

The workers who are likely to lose their jobs also will need help — and easing the impact on their lives and communities is necessary to maintain political support.

The scale of the aid represents a significant political breakthrough. But there is a very real danger that it’s not enough. Only 4% of the aid for South Africa is in the form of grants. The rest basically amounts to helping South Africa borrow money from foreign lenders to whom it already is heavily indebted. Even without any borrowing for energy transition, the national debt is equal to more than two-thirds of gross domestic product.

For South Africa, there also will be a temptation to treat solar and wind as supplements rather than replacements for coal power. Political leaders have made clear that they are not willing to sacrifice growth, and even as the government pursues its plans, some have openly argued that coal remains the country’s best option.

The hardest work, in other words, remains ahead. Given the urgency of addressing climate change, and the momentum to extend similar aid to other nations, it will be crucial to learn, and to adjust, quickly.

ONLINE: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/14/opinion/climate-change-south-africa.html

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Jan. 12

The Wall Street Journal on Pete Buttigieg, the FAA and the airlines

Only a couple of weeks ago, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg roasted Southwest Airlines for problems that led to thousands of canceled flights. Yet Mr. Buttigieg was no model of contrition Wednesday after airlines were grounded nationwide by a mega-meltdown at the agency he oversees, the Federal Aviation Administration.

“This is an incredibly complex system,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “Glitches or complications happen all the time.” Those are words of great comfort, no doubt, to any travelers who missed grandma’s funeral. The cause of Wednesday’s fiasco was a failure in the FAA’s clunky decades-old Notice to Air Missions (Notam) system. Notam gives alerts to pilots before they take off, for example, if taxiways are closed for maintenance.

But a systemwide crash is not a glitch. At first the FAA resorted to a telephone hotline to keep planes flying, but this backup quickly became overwhelmed. On Wednesday morning the FAA grounded all flights while it rebooted Notam.

Some airlines, including JetBlue and Delta, believed that operations could continue despite the Notam outage, according to a Journal report. Pilots say the alerts often are irrelevant and unintelligible, and JetBlue reportedly developed a backup system because of a past Notam outage.

The FAA’s ground stop, which lasted nearly two hours, caused more than 1,300 flights across the U.S. to be canceled and at least 9,700 to be delayed. The agency blamed the Notam outage on a corrupted database file, though it’s also still investigating. Officials say there’s is no evidence so far of a cyberattack.

But given the importance of the FAA’s mission, this kind of failure is hard to excuse. If glitches happen all the time, why doesn’t the FAA have redundancies? Canada’s Notam system, operated by a nonprofit, experienced apparently unrelated problems Wednesday, but planes there kept flying.

“Our responsibility is to make sure that everybody is safe, and we’re always going to err on the side of safety,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “When there’s an issue in FAA, we’re going to own it, we’re going to understand it, and we’re going to make very clear what’s needed in order to fix it.” But the FAA’s antiquated systems have long created headaches, albeit ones less glaring to the public.

Congress in 2003 mandated that the FAA implement a NextGen modernization plan by 2025, and it has given the agency money for upgrades. Yet an inspector general report in 2021 found that many FAA updates were delayed because of poor planning. The Notam overhaul has been slow.

We’ve argued for years that Congress should transfer air-traffic control and related systems to a private entity, as Canada did in 1996. This would provide more accountability, meaning that aging systems would get modernized faster.

Unlike airlines, the FAA doesn’t have to pay a price for its foul-ups. When problems with Southwest’s outdated scheduling software forced it to cancel thousands of flights after Christmas, Mr. Buttigieg threatened to punish the airline and insisted it fully refund passengers. When the government is at fault, airlines and travelers are out of luck.

Mr. Buttigieg’s “safety first” mantra is misdirection to distract from the FAA’s repeated failures. Recall how the FAA a year ago threatened to ground flights if wireless carriers turned on 5G C-Band spectrum near airports. The agency claimed the 5G signals could potentially interfere with plane altimeters that measure the distance to the ground.

The Federal Communications Commission disagreed when it authorized the 5G deployment some 20 months earlier, and the FAA didn’t raise concerns until weeks before the spectrum was set to go live. Wireless carriers ultimately agreed to pause part of their rollout. The FAA on Wednesday gave airlines until February 2024 to retrofit their altimeters, which it estimated would cost $26 million.

This is a fraction of the $80 billion that wireless carriers paid for the C-Band spectrum, as well as the cost of the two-year delay. Will the FAA compensate them? Of course not. Glitches happen all the time.

ONLINE: https://www.wsj.com/articles/pete-buttigiegs-big-airline-glitch-faa-notam-system-flight-cancellations-11673565098

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Jan. 15

The Los Angeles Times on the gas-stove culture war

Who could have predicted that kitchen stoves would become the latest tinderbox in the nation’s culture wars?

But that’s what happened in recent days as Republicans flew off the handle over comments by Richard Trumka Jr., a member of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, who said the agency was looking at regulating gas stoves and could even ban them because they are a health hazard.

GOP politicians seized on the remarks, accusing President Biden and the Democrats of trying to take away people’s gas stoves. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz declared they’d have to “pry” his gas stove “from my COLD DEAD HANDS!” and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio debuted a new motto of sorts: “God. Guns. Gas stoves.”

They were joined by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a champion of the fossil fuel industry, who said “the federal government has no business telling American families how to cook their dinner” and “the last thing that would ever leave my house is the gas stove that we cook on.”

Of course, no federal officials are going to barge into homes and confiscate stoves, and any regulations the Consumer Product Safety Commission might pursue would apply only to new products anyway.

So far, the commission has done little more than announce last fall that it would be seeking public input on the hazards associated with gas stoves. It garnered little attention until last week, when it exploded into a national news story and social media controversy. The uproar forced the commission chair to clarify Wednesday that the commission is exploring ways to reduce indoor air pollution from gas stoves but is not looking to ban them or in any proceedings to do so. The White House weighed in too, telling reporters Wednesday that President Biden “does not support banning gas stoves.”

But the commission is right to consider regulations. The fact is, there are real, longstanding health concerns about gas stoves. They are used in 35% of U.S. homes and can generate harmful levels of indoor air pollution, especially in homes that lack proper ventilation, such as range hoods that vent to the outside.

Alarming new findings in a recently published study suggest that more than 12% of childhood asthma cases in the United States can be attributed to the use of gas stoves and that they pose a similar risk to children as being exposed to secondhand smoke. The numbers are worse in California, where scientists estimated that more than 20% of childhood asthma cases are attributable to gas stove use. Some 74% of California households with children cook with gas, much higher than the national average of 43%, according to researchers.

Previous studies have shown that natural gas stoves, which burn planet-warming methane and a stew of toxic chemicals, generate unhealthful levels of air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. They also leak so much that they can push indoor concentrations of cancer-causing benzene to dangerous levels even when they are off. Though more research is needed, regulators should know enough at this point to take action.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission should consider rules for gas stoves that would set standards for emissions, leakage and ventilation and better inform the public about the health risks they pose. Gas stoves should ultimately be phased out to protect public health and the climate, but that will take years, given the politics and expense of retrofitting homes for all-electric appliances.

The recent eruption of faux outrage over a nonexistent gas stove ban should be understood as the latest outgrowth of a decades-long disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry whose business model is threatened by the transition to all-electric homes powered by renewable energy. Stoves account for only a small percentage of household gas use but have become cultural symbols that gas companies and their supporters have manufactured through greenwashing campaigns designed to prolong their use and slow action to protect public health and the climate.

This brouhaha, by shedding more light on the risks of cooking with gas, could hasten our country’s move to cleaner, more efficient technology. It’s a transition that is happening whether fossil-fuel-supporting politicians like it or not.

Los Angeles is among a growing list of U.S. cities that have already banned gas stoves, furnaces and other fossil-fueled appliances in new construction and require new buildings to be all-electric. And under the landmark climate law signed last year by Biden, many Americans will soon be offered rebates and other incentives to help them replace their old fossil-fueled appliances with new, energy-efficient electric ones.

That includes up to $840 to replace a gas stove or cooktop with an induction or other electric-powered model, making the switch much more affordable. Highly rated induction ranges can be purchased for around $1,200 or less and offer superior performance and efficiency. They score significantly higher than gas-fueled models in Consumer Reports’ ratings, leading that organization to proclaim they “are so good you may not miss your gas appliance.”

There won’t be any federal agents pounding on your door to seize your gas stove. But there might be a generous government incentive to motivate you to switch it out for something cleaner, faster, less polluting and better for your family’s health.

ONLINE: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2023-01-15/gas-stoves-pollution-consumer-safety

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Jan. 11

The Guardian on anti-strike laws

No reasonable inquiry into the cause of Britain’s present political and economic difficulties would point the finger at trade union power. Industrial action is an issue now because of grievances amassed over many years. To respond, as the government intends, with legal curtailment of the right to strike is a misdiagnosis of the problem and an opportunistic assault on fundamental rights.

The proposed bill would give the business secretary, Grant Shapps, powers to define “minimum service levels” in certain sectors — health, fire and rescue, education, border control, transport, and nuclear safety. Workers would be required to maintain that level during a strike or forfeit employment rights, including legal protection against unfair dismissal. Employers would issue “work notices” enforcing the minimum service level, and unions would be liable to legal action if they abetted breach of those notices.

Striking itself would not be banned, but the rights of workers to withdraw their labor without fear of repercussion would be drastically reduced, as would the capacity of trade unions to provide collective representation — their “raison d’être.” There is no way to configure that except as a targeted assault on the foundations of organized labor and a withdrawal of fundamental economic freedoms.

The government argues that there is provision for consultation with unions on the definition of “minimum services,” that other European countries have similar rules and that the measures are a last resort. Mr. Shapps says he would hope never to enforce the new powers. But consultation is a worthless safeguard if a union’s view can be ignored. European states with minimum service requirements have developed them in genuine partnership with unions. They are not imposed by decree.

The defense of last resort is nonsense. A function of draconian powers is intimidation — an effect that applies whether or not Mr. Shapps takes any pleasure in wielding a statutory fiat. But the anti-strike bill has a political purpose that takes effect even before it becomes law, as Rishi Sunak demonstrated in prime minister’s questions on Wednesday. He challenged Keir Starmer to back the proposal or prove, in opposing it, that he was “on the side of his union paymasters, not patients.”

The prime minister has decided that the public will not tolerate much more disruption to health services, and that increasing frustration is a resource that can be deployed against Labor. There is no evidence of that working so far. Opinion polls show a majority of voters sympathizing more with nurses and ambulance drivers than with Tory ministers. Even if the mood shifts, Mr. Sunak is unlikely to benefit. He has failed to negotiate, or even engage with, the strikers’ arguments. The recourse to sabotaging the legal foundations of their strike is a sign of weakness.

It also reveals an antiquated fixation on over-mighty trade unions, carried over from the 1970s and the winter of discontent. Mr. Sunak was not even born then. Times have changed, the economy has changed, the law has changed. Today’s strikes express despair at the degradation of public services and the impossibility of earning a living on wages that are shrinking in real terms. The prime minister responds by attacking trade union rights because he lacks the imagination and the compassion to develop better strategies. A law written for that reason is bad in practice and wrong in principle.

ONLINE: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jan/11/the-guardian-view-on-anti-strike-laws-bad-in-practice-wrong-in-principle

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