Month: December 2019

In France, American Scientists Are Trying to ‘Make Planet Great Again’

Carol Lee collaborates with University of Montpellier colleagues researching how tiny plankton cope in an ever-saltier Mediterranean sea and a freshwater-infused Baltic one. From the foothills of the French Pyrenees, Camille Parmesan experiments with cutting-edge climate modeling, hoping it may offer clues for future biodiversity conservation.Both biologists have pulled up stakes from previous posts, counting among U.S. scientists who are responding to the Trump administration’s upcoming withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement with their feet.  “I know quite a lot of really top-notch scientists who have just moved to other countries,” said Lee, citing colleagues who have headed to Europe and China. “And a big, alarming trend is there are a lot of very smart people who are not moving to the U.S.”  “I know quite a lot of really top-notch scientists who have just moved to other countries,” says Lee, pictured with a colleague. “And a big, alarming trend is there are a lot of very smart people who are not moving to the U.S.”Lee’s assessment follows numerous allegations that the U.S. government is undermining climate and other research on multiple fronts, from shrinking funding and shutting programs to diminishing science’s role in policymaking. Hundreds of scientists have left their jobs, according to a recent New York Times article, although it’s unclear how many have headed overseas.  U.S. officials offer a different picture. A State Department statement issued ahead of December’s climate talks in Madrid, for example, said the government remained committed to research and innovation. It credited advances, ranging from renewables to “transformational” coal technologies, for allowing the United States to simultaneously reduce emissions, protect the environment and grow the economy.  Yet these days Europe is more often seen as the climate leader. Still, it faces its own set of challenges. The European Union’s climate-fighting efforts vary sharply by member state, with countries like Poland still heavily reliant on coal.  Moreover, a recent study by the European Investment Bank finds the EU must invest massively more in research and development to a meet a new and ambitious 2050 goal of zero net emissions. Indeed, it finds Europe lags behind the US and China in climate change mitigation investments as a share of GDP.  French President Emmanuel Macron holds a sign with the slogan ‘Make our planet great again’ as he attends the ‘Tech for Planet’ event at the ‘Station F’ start-up campus ahead of the One Planet Summit in Paris on Dec. 11, 2017.French grantsIn France, Lee and Parmesan count among more than a dozen U.S. scientists benefiting from generous research grants under President Emmanuel Macron’s Make the Planet Great Again program, a direct rebuttal to Washington’s departure from the Paris pact. Yet Macron himself is criticized at home for failing to match climate-fighting rhetoric with action, while experts say French science overall is seriously underfunded.  “It’s very clear there isn’t enough investment in France, and we’ll need to concentrate on this in the years to come,” says Stephane Blanc, who heads the MOPGA initiative, pointing however to upcoming legislation aimed to significantly boost research funding.  Launched in mid-2017, Macron’s initiative — known more prosaically as MOPGA — offers three- to five-year matching grants of up to $1.7 million for cutting-edge environment research on areas that also include biodiversity loss and sustainable agriculture. American and formerly U.S.-based scientists dominate the 41 grantees, who also include French and other Europeans. Germany has rolled out a similar, but more modest initiative.  “When Macron made that announcement, I thought ‘I’m applying for that,'” says Lee, who had previously collaborated with Montpellier University.  Her grant of nearly $900,000 allows her to hire graduate students for research into how plankton can adapt to changes in salinity and temperature. Her two targets are witnessing diametrically opposite climate-affected impacts; while the Mediterranean is increasing in salinity, ice melt is injecting a mass of freshwater into the Baltic Sea that promises to decimate key local species like cod.  “I’m looking at the base of the food chain, because that’s so important for maintaining everything — that’s the little guys, the copepods,” she says of the plankton.  At home in Madison, Wisconsin, Lee launched a more personal climate change fight, going vegetarian and powering her house with wind. But she does not see enough action on a national level.  “I feel like scientists are getting ignored in the United States, that what we say doesn’t matter right now, and that is incredibly distressing,” she says.  In France, by contrast, she is confident her research will be published and widely disseminated.  “Somebody is going to listen to us,” she says. “In Europe and elsewhere.”  FILE – In this Sept.5, 2017 file photo, French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot meet with NGOs to discuss climate and environment at the Elysee Palace in Paris.Modeling change  For Parmesan, France amounted a Eurostar train ride away from her previous research posting in Britain. During her career, she has given talks at the White House, testified before Congress and collected prestigious awards for her research, which includes helping to solidify the science behind the 2°C-degree global warming cap set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  “I think I’ve done my thing about the fact we need to reduce carbon emissions,” Parmesan says. “What I’m trying to do now is go more towards what we do about it.”Today, she works at a French research station in the tiny southwestern commune of Moulis, trying to apply economic-style simulations to biodiversity conservation under a rapidly changing climate.  “It’s really tricky, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “How do you come up with a conservation plan? What do you preserve and where to you preserve in the face of all this?”She describes a recent slew of emissions and global warming records as yet more grim data points on a now-clear trajectory.  But she is alarmed the United States is not leading the response.  “A lot of the best science has come out of the United States, but that’s going away,” she says.  While some U.S. colleagues are staying put in their jobs, mindful of family and financial constraints, others are not, she says.  “If they’re old enough they’re retiring, if they’re young enough they’re getting the hell out of there,” Parmesan said, adding a number are asking her about research options in Europe.  She is worried about the future, but energized by the rising tide of youth climate activists.  “Young people will see a tremendous degradation of their lifestyle — everyone who reads the science knows that,” Parmesan says. “So I’m really excited that age group is finally getting charged up, and demanding these older politicians do something.”

Vaping Comes Under Fire

Amid an alarming surge in vaping among teenagers, Congress recently approved an unprecedented measure to curb tobacco and e-cigarette use nationwide, especially among teens.Congress voted to increase the legal age to buy tobacco and vape products from 18 to 21 as part of a major fiscal 2020 spending agreement. First introduced in May by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, the “Tobacco-Free Youth Act” has bipartisan support and aims to tackle youth vaping.President Donald Trump had signaled his support of the measure and signed the underlying legislation Dec. 20. However, under pressure from his own campaign manager and special interests, Trump appears to be reconsidering a plan he unveiled in September to reduce youth vaping by banning flavored e-cigarettes — an approach that experts say would be far more effective than raising the legal smoking age to 21.Despite warnings from government agencies and anti-vaping advocacy groups, the prevalence of minors using e-cigarettes has doubled since 2017, according to data compiled by the University of Michigan and released last September by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.Juul, the most popular e-cigarette in the U.S., controlled 75 percent of the market in 2018 and is at the center of what the U.S. Surgeon General has called an “epidemic of youth e-cigarette use.” While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that no one brand is responsible for the outbreak of illnesses, as an industry leader, Juul is the focus of most finger-pointing, including from the surgeon general.Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced a lawsuit against Juul on Dec. 12, echoing attorneys general in D.C., New York, California and North Carolina who have filed similar lawsuits this year. Multiple school districts around the country have also taken legal action against Juul.Juul did not return phone calls or emails from VOA.FILE – A woman buys refills for her Juul at a smoke shop in New York, Dec. 20, 2018.Big tobacco’s influenceOfficials have pointed to a forerunner — the tobacco industry — which they say provided a blueprint for the embattled company and others like it.”Juul basically took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook by marketing its products in a manner that was appealing to underage youth,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James in a press conference Nov. 19.Juul’s advertising in its first three years on the market was “patently youth oriented,” according to a Stanford study, contradicting Juul’s claim that their customers of choice are adult tobacco smokers. The study found that Juul recruited online influencers and focused its marketing on social media websites popular with youth.A memo from the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy accused Juul of deploying a “sophisticated program” to introduce its products to children. The memo revealed Juul paid $134,000 to a Baltimore charter school to organize a “holistic health education program” for low-income students. Emails obtained by the subcommittee showed that one Juul executive described the school programs as “eerily similar” to how tobacco companies market.Juul has repeatedly denied marketing its products to teens.”Put simply, Juul Labs isn’t Big Tobacco,” said Juul Labs co-founder James Monsees as he testified in a congressional hearing in July.However, Altria Group, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, whose subsidiary Philip Morris USA owns the popular Marlboro brand, invested $12.8 billion in Juul last year, acquiring a 35 percent stake and bolstering suspicions that e-cigarette and vape companies were influenced by major tobacco brands.Katy Talento, a former adviser to Trump on health care policy, said she experienced the tobacco effect firsthand.WATCH: Student Union: Former Trump Adviser Says Juul Mislead the White House “After some of these meetings took place in the White House between Juul and the Republican lobbyists and the White House staff who work on health care issues, they announced that they were being bought by Altria,” Talento told VOA. “So they were literally wedding planning with Big Tobacco while they were insisting to us that they were trying to rid the world of tobacco.”Juul isn’t the only e-cigarette maker backed by the large tobacco companies. Most of the top e-cigarettes and vape producers in the U.S. are owned by tobacco giants: Imperial Brand acquired Blu from its rival R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 2014, whose subsidiary owns the popular Vuse vaporizers. British American Tobacco, second in the world only to Philip Morris International, launched Vype in 2013.White House meetingTop vaping representatives, tobacco executives and public health officials clashed in a televised meeting at the White House in late November. K.C. Crosthwaite, a former Altria executive who become CEO of Juul in September, was one of the executives in the room.During the meeting, Crosthwaite said Juul could not ignore the data that suggests youth vaping is a “serious problem” and that Juul was “a part of it,” and he expressed willingness to support the FDA’s determinations.Crosthwaite’s statements appear to fall in line with Juul’s recent actions. Following condemnation from the FDA and public outcry, Juul stopped selling its popular fruity and mint flavors and suspended all advertising in the U.S.Vaping representatives in the Cabinet Room meeting were quick to point out that not only did the flavor removals fail to hurt Juul’s business, it helped. When prodded by the president, Crosthwaite admitted that “business grew.”Anti-vape campaignAccording to the CDC, 54 people have died and 2,506 people have been hospitalized from EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury) in the U.S. Previously identified as a likely culprit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December that a recent study suggests vitamin E acetate is “closely associated” with EVALI.Most of the illnesses and deaths linked to vaping were caused by THC-containing products, especially counterfeit THC products and those obtained from second-hand or informal sources like online sellers. THC is a psychoactive element of marijuana.Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the cases of mysterious vaping-related illnesses have been declining since September.Some states and cities, including New York City, have restricted the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, although exceptions are generally made for tobacco and menthol flavors. Many states have also implemented taxes and raised the legal age to 21 to combat youth vaping. In Massachusetts, the governor implemented a temporary ban on the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping products starting Sept. 24. That ban ended Dec. 24.Uncertainty and confusion continues to persist in the vaping debate. A new study has concluded that the use of e-cigarettes increases the risk of developing chronic lung diseases, but less so than smoking.Following a 2016 ruling that placed vaping products under the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration’s (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products, vape producers have until May 2020 to submit their products, many of which were largely unregulated, for review by the FDA.

Violence Grows Against Women and Children in Economic Deprivation of Yemen’s War

A recent study has revealed an increase in violence against women and children resulting from the conflict in Yemen.   Research by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies shows women and girls in Yemen have been affected by rape, kidnapping and domestic violence, while boys face sexual violence and are forced to work. 
Yemen’s nearly five-year conflict is having disastrous consequences on its civilian population, according to the recent study, “A Gendered Crisis: Understanding Experiences of Yemen’s War.”
The qualitative research involving some 90 focus group discussions across Yemen’s political and socioeconomic classes found that unemployment has undermined men’s traditional role as breadwinner, driving many to seek a salary by fighting on the front lines. Rising poverty has left parents unable to educate their children.  The middle class has slipped into poverty and the poor into destitution.
 One of the authors, Shams Shamsan of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, says that the financial strain caused by the war has plunged the already impoverish nation at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula into a dire economic crisis making women, youth and children more vulnerable to exploitation and multiple forms of gender-based violence.
“Youth and kids are lured into sexual activity in exchange for money and sometimes materialistic things. Women report a lot of kidnapping and groping in the streets and they say there is a growing impunity towards predators who do that,” Shamsan said. “In the past, if a woman is harassed in the street, everybody would jump in to try to protect her, but now there is no such thing. People are usually scared.”
 UN: Yemen’s Children Suffer ‘Devastating Toll’ in 5-Year Conflict

        The United Nations said Monday that the five-year-old conflict in Yemen has taken a "devastating toll" on the country's children, with thousands killed, maimed and recruited to fight since the war began. "The impact of this conflict on children is horrific," Virginia Gamba, U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, told a meeting of the Security Council. 

Shamsan says that Yemeni families forbid doctors to report cases of rape due to the social stigma attached to it in their culture.
Rights group Amnesty International also said recently that Yemen’s negative gender stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes, a discriminatory legal system, and economic inequality have compounded women’s vulnerability to violence.  Activists like Shamsan say that more needs to be done to protect children and women against the growing gender-based violence.
“We need to educate women and children on what is sexual violence. What does it mean when you get harassed,” Shamsan said. “Some kids get harassed and they don’t know they are being harassed. So, we need some sort of an awareness program to families and children and how to report. We have very little programs that work on psychosocial support. We need rehabilitation programs for those who experience sexual assault and sexual trauma.”
Shamsan says children and youth being sent to the frontlines also badly need psycho-social support and rehabilitation centers to help them integrate into society, otherwise they transfer their battlefield trauma into domestic violence.

The Future of Protest? Catalans Outwit Spanish Authorities With Phone App

A pro-independence group in Spain’s Catalonia region is using a smartphone app to outwit authorities, as it steps up demonstrations following the jailing of several of the movement’s leaders.
The group Democratic Tsunami released the app to coordinate demonstrations across the region.The latest target was the world-famous El Clasico soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid on Dec. 18. There were violent clashes outside the stadium, and protesters disrupted the game by throwing balls bearing pro-independence slogans onto the field.Democratic Tsunami has no apparent leader and those behind it are anonymous. In recent weeks, the group has mobilized thousands of demonstrators in minutes, catching authorities by surprise.WATCH: Henry Ridgwell’s video report
The Future of Protest? Catalans Outwit Spanish Authorities With Phone App video player.
Embed” />Copy Link“It is decentralized in the sense that you can’t identify who is sending the notifications for the protests,” said professor Enric Lujan, a political scientist at the University of Barcelona.“They developed it that way. The app has that architecture in order to avoid the authorities from knowing who is behind Tsunami Democratic, which is the main obsession, for example, of the Spanish Interior Ministry.”
Lujan said the Democratic Tsunami app takes special steps to remain anonymous.
“You cannot download it from the usual channels such as the Google Play Store or the iPhone App store. You have to look for a link and then download the app directly,” he said.
Even after the app has been downloaded, it still needs to be activated by another approved user, explained software engineer Silvia Puglisi of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.
“You just go to a protest, and you exchange a QR code. The QR code is a cryptographic key, and once the keys are exchanged, you are part of the system.”
Democratic Tsunami has grown rapidly in the space of a few months, staging protests that have paralyzed Barcelona’s airport and the main highway to the French border. Spain’s National Court has ordered the Democratic Tsunami website to be shut down, citing possible terrorism offenses. Madrid jailed nine Catalan independence leaders in October on charges of sedition.
The political party Pirates of Catalonia has taken the fight to the European Union’s Court of Justice, claiming the terrorism investigation is an abuse of basic human rights.
Experts say that if the coding is made available, the app could be used by other protest movements, like pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
“The idea is to just exchange a key. You don’t exchange any other information, and it’s totally decentralized. There is no central service, and you just communicate with your friends on a peer-to-peer basis,” Puglisi said.
There are concerns that with no oversight from a regulated app store, the Democratic Tsunami app could break strict European rules on storing and sharing data, such as the tracking of its users’ movements.
Supporters say it’s a vital tool in the face of what they claim is an attempt to stifle basic freedoms.

Measles Outbreaks Make 2019 a Record-Setting Year

The year 2019 saw a totally preventable disease claim the lives of more than 140,000 people, mostly children and babies. It happened as unvaccinated children created a pathway for measles outbreaks globally. Some of the outbreaks are still continuing.Samoan Emite Talaalevea lost her daughter. She says she never expected to see such grief.”I was shocked, it was very hard to me to accept what happened,” she said.Measles claimed the lives of some 81 people on the island, mostly children and infants. Robert Linkins, an expert on measles in the Global Immunization Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the deaths were completely preventable.”Two shots of a vaccine could have saved those children’s lives.”The vaccination rate in Samoa dropped to about 30% after two children died from a measles vaccine that was mistakenly mixed with a muscle relaxant. People wrongly attributed the deaths to the vaccine, stopped vaccinating their children, then measles exploded on the island.Samoa has a population of 200,000. Some 5,600 people caught the virus. Linkins said because measles is so highly infectious, the disease spread rapidly.”The hospitals and health clinics were overrun with very sick children, and there weren’t enough health care workers and hospital beds to adequately deliver the services that they needed,” Linkins said.Medical teams went door-to-door with the vaccine. The goal was to get 95% of the population vaccinated. The Samoan government, Linkins said, turned to the CDC for help in stemming the epidemic.”[The] CDC also was asked to do training of health care workers to ensure safe vaccine delivery, as well as to monitor the quality of the immunization campaign that took place,” Linkins said.FILE – Children, their faces covered with masks, wait to get vaccinated against measles at a health clinic in Apia, Samoa, Nov. 18, 2019.In 2019, more 400,000 cases of measles were reported globally, with an additional 250,000 cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.In the first three months of 2019, the number of measles cases tripled over the same period of 2018. Dr. Kate O’Brien, an immunization expert with the World Health Organization, cites many reasons children are not getting vaccinated.”The main reason for failure to vaccinate against measles is families, communities are not having access to the vaccine,” O’Brien said.Conflict and poor health systems in low income countries prevent families from vaccinating their children. But in rich countries, some parents are opting out of immunizations. The United States tops the list with 2.5 million children missing their first dose of the measles vaccine. Two doses are essential for immunization.
The CDC reported more than 1,200 cases of measles in 31 U.S. states by late December, the highest number in 25 years. Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccinologist at Baylor College of Medicine, says the numbers are alarming.
“In the United States now, measles epidemics are becoming the new normal in this country, after we eliminated measles in 2000,” Hotez said.
In 2019, four European countries — Britain, Albania, the Czech Republic and Greece — lost their measles eradication status, meaning measles is now considered endemic in these countries.”In other words, we’re backsliding,” said Kate O’Brien with the WHO.Samoa ended its state of emergency over its measles outbreak just days before 2019 ended. But the resurgence of measles is still a global health problem. Some parents are complacent about the vaccine. Others have come to fear it more than the deadly virus itself. Unless this changes, experts say, there will be more deaths, and more outbreaks in 2020. 

In New York, New Year’s Eve Isn’t Complete Without the Ball Drop

This New Year’s Eve, an estimated 1 million people will pack the streets of New York City’s Times Square to watch the famous ball drop. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1907, as visitors from around the world gather to count down the final seconds to the New Year. VOA’s Tina Trinh heads to the rooftop of One Times Square for a look at the New Year’s Eve ball, the centerpiece of one of the world’s most anticipated New Year’s Eve celebrations.

China Investigates Respiratory Illness Outbreak Sickening 27

Chinese experts are investigating an outbreak of respiratory illness in the central city of Wuhan that some have likened to the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.The city’s health commission said in a statement Tuesday that 27 people had fallen ill with a strain of viral pneumonia, seven of whom were in serious condition.It said most had visited a seafood market in the sprawling city, apparently pointing to a common origin of the outbreak.Unverified information online said the illnesses were caused by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which emerged from southern China and killed more than 700 people in several countries and regions. SARS was brought under control through quarantines and other extreme measures, but not before causing a virtual shutdown to travel in China and the region and taking a severe toll on the economy.However, the health commission said the cause of the outbreak was still unclear and called on citizens not to panic.

Uber, Postmates Sue to Challenge California’s New Labor Law

Ride-share company Uber and on-demand meal delivery service Postmates sued Monday to block a broad new California law aimed at giving wage and benefit protections to people who work as independent contractors.The lawsuit filed in U.S. court in Los Angeles argues that the law set to take effect Wednesday violates federal and state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.Uber said it will try to link the lawsuit to another legal challenge filed in mid-December by associations representing freelance writers and photographers.The California Trucking Association filed the first challenge to the law in November on behalf of independent truckers.The law creates the nation’s strictest test by which workers must be considered employees and it could set a precedent for other states.The latest challenge includes two independent workers who wrote about their concerns with the new law.”This has thrown my life and the lives of more than a hundred(equals)thousand drivers into uncertainty,” ride-share driver Lydia Olson’s wrote in a Facebook post cited by Uber.Postmates driver Miguel Perez called on-demand work “a blessing” in a letter distributed by Uber. He said he used to drive a truck for 14 hours at a time, often overnight.”Sometimes, when I was behind the wheel, with an endless shift stretching out ahead of me like the open road, I daydreamed about a different kind of job — a job where I could choose when, where and how much I worked and still make enough money to feed my family,” he wrote.The lawsuit contends that the law exempts some industries but includes ride-share and delivery companies without a rational basis for distinguishing between them. It alleges that the law also infringes on workers’ rights to choose how they make a living and could void their existing contracts.Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego countered that she wrote the law to extend employee rights to more than a million California workers who lack benefits, including a minimum wage, mileage reimbursements, paid sick leave, medical coverage and disability pay for on-the-job injuries.She noted that Uber had previously sought an exemption when lawmakers were crafting the law, then said it would defend its existing labor model from legal challenges. It joined Lyft and DoorDash in a vow to each spend $30 million to overturn the law at the ballot box in 2020 if they don’t win concessions from lawmakers next year.”The one clear thing we know about Uber is they will do anything to try to exempt themselves from state regulations that make us all safer and their driver employees self-sufficient,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “In the meantime, Uber chief executives will continue to become billionaires while too many of their drivers are forced to sleep in their cars.’’The new law was a response to a legal ruling last year by the California Supreme Court regarding workers at the delivery company Dynamex.

Huawei Sales Up 18% but US Pressure Means Tough Times Ahead

China’s Huawei Technologies said Tuesday that its sales rose a lower-than-projected 18% in 2019 and predicted tough times ahead as the U.S. moves to restrict its business.The flash sales estimate came in an annual New Year’s message to employees. Chairman Eric Xu warned that mediocre managers would face demotion as the telecom giant and leader in 5G mobile technology focuses on survival.”It’s going to be a difficult year for us,” he wrote, calling on the company’s more than 190,000 employees “to work hard and go the extra mile to bring their capabilities to a new level.”No one is predicting Huawei’s demise. The unlisted company, a major maker of both mobile transmission equipment and handsets, estimated 2019 sales would rise to more than 850 billion yuan ($120 billion).”These figures are lower than our initial projections, yet business remains solid and we stand strong in the face of adversity,” Xu said in the letter, which was released to the AP and other media.Huawei, based in the tech hub of Shenzhen in southern China, typically releases its official and audited annual financial results in March.The U.S. government says Huawei technology poses a security risk and has urged other countries not to buy its 5G mobile network equipment. It has also put Huawei on its entity list, blocking U.S. technology sales to the company. Huawei denies the allegation.Calling difficulty the prelude to greater success, Xu said America’s “strategic and long-term” campaign against Huawei is an opportunity to build up some muscle and build capabilities to navigate future challenges.”Despite concerted efforts by the U.S. government to keep us down, we’ve made it out the other side and continue to create value for our customers,” he wrote.The five-page letter exhorts employees to hone their skills and rid themselves of complacency. Saying that survival is the company’s top priority, Xu warns that mediocre managers “who have lost their enterprising spirit” will be removed faster than before.

Germany’s Merkel Urges Climate Action in New Year Message

Chancellor Angela Merkel is telling Germans in her New Year message that “everything humanly possible” must be done to tackle climate change.Merkel said that there is good reason to be confident about the 2020s in her annual televised message, the text of which was released ahead of its broadcast Tuesday. But she pointed to challenges such as the effect of digitization on people’s jobs and, above all, climate change.”The warming of our Earth is real. It is threatening. It and the crises arising from global warming were caused by humans,” she said. “So we must do everything humanly possible to deal with this challenge for humanity. That is still possible.”Merkel said that was the principle behind a recently agreed German package of measures aimed at addressing climate change, which include a carbon dioxide pricing system for the transport and heating sectors and lowering value-added tax on long-distance rail tickets.She acknowledged criticism both from people who are worried about being overburdened by the measures and from those who think they don’t go far enough, but said they provide the “necessary framework.””It’s true that, at 65, I am at an age where I personally won’t experience all the consequences of climate change that would arise if politicians didn’t act,” she said.”It is our children and grandchildren who will have to live with the consequences of what we do or don’t do today,” Merkel added. “So I am putting all my energy into Germany making its contribution — ecologically, economically, socially — to getting a grip on climate change.”That is also a priority of the European Union’s new executive Commission, headed by Ursula von der Leyen — a former German defense minister. Germany will hold the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2020.”Europe must raise its voice more strongly in the world,” Merkel said, pledging to work for that during the EU presidency. She pointed to planned meetings with Chinese and African leaders.Merkel, Germany’s leader since 2005, has said that her current fourth term as chancellor will be her last.Protection against hatredUnlike last year’s, this New Year message contained no reference to infighting in the often-tense coalition government of her center-right Christian Democratic  Union and the center-left Social Democrats. It remains uncertain whether the coalition will last until the end of the parliamentary term in 2021.Merkel did, however, stress the need for authorities to protect local government officials and “all people in our country against hatred, hostility and violence, against racism and anti-Semitism.”This year saw the killing of a regional government official from Merkel’s party, Walter Luebcke, who had vocally supported Merkel’s welcoming stance toward refugees in 2015. The suspect is a far-right extremist.And in October, a man tried to force his way into a synagogue in Halle on Judaism’s holiest day, later killing two passers-by before being arrested. The suspect posted an anti-Semitic screed before the attack.

Brazil Fines Facebook $1.6M for Improper Sharing of User Data

Brazil’s Ministry of Justice said on Monday it has fined U.S. tech giant Facebook Inc 6.6 million reais ($1.6 million) for improperly sharing user data.The ministry’s department of consumer protection said it had found that data from 443,000 Facebook users was made improperly available to developers of an app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife.’ The data was being shared for “questionable” purposes, the ministry said in a statement.Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.The ministry said the world’s largest social network failed to provide users with adequate information regarding default privacy settings, particularly related to data of “friends” and “friends of friends.”The ministry said it launched the investigation following media reports of the misuse of data by political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica in 2018.Facebook has 10 days to appeal the decision. The fine should be paid within 30 days. 

Children in Conflict Pay a Deadly Price

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says verified attacks on children in conflict have risen threefold since 2010, making the past decade particularly deadly for children.
As the decade draws to a close, UNICEF reports children continue to pay a deadly price as conflicts rage around the world. In a video message, UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore expresses her dismay at the bloody cost of war that claims so many young lives forces them to flee their homes and shatters their dreams for the future.”As people prepare to celebrate the coming of the New Year, I hope we also remember those who are not so lucky,” she said. “Today, hundreds of millions of children and young people are living in countries and areas torn apart by conflict, from Syria and Yemen, to South Sudan, Central African Republic and Nigeria.”UNICEF has verified more than 170,000 grave violations against children in conflict since the start of the decade. That comes to more than 45 violations every single day for the last 10 years.It says it fears the killing and maiming of children will increase as conflicts become more frequent, are more violent and last longer. Fore describes the lives of the children caught in this mayhem as a waking nightmare.”They are used as human shields,” she said. “They are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and child marriage. Many are recruited to the fighting and millions miss out on the nutrition, health care, protection, and education that their bodies and brains need to develop.”UNICEF reports airstrikes and explosive weapons such as landmines, mortars, and cluster munitions have killed or maimed more than 12,000 children in 2018. In addition, it has verified more than 24,000 grave violations against children, including sexual violence, abductions, child recruitment and attacks on schools and hospitals.The agency says attacks and violence against children have not let up throughout 2019. The final tally for the year is not yet in. But it has verified more than 10,000 grave violations against children during the first half of the year, noting the actual number is likely to be much higher.As the year and the decade draw to a close, UNICEF is urging all warring parties to abide by their obligations under international law and to end violations against children. It also is calling on states with influence over the parties to do more to protect children against the ravages of war.   

2019 Was Hottest Year on Record for Russia

This year was the hottest ever registered in Russia, the country’s weather chief said on Monday, as climate change pushes global temperatures to record highs.”This year in Russia was the hottest for the entire period of instrumental observations,” the head of the Gidromedtsentr weather service, Roman Vilfand, told Russian news agencies.He said Moscow’s average temperature for 2019 had hit 7.6-7.7 degrees Celsius (45.7-45.9 degrees Fahrenheit), beating the previous record by 0.3 degrees.Weather records have been kept since 1879 in Moscow and since 1891 in Russia as a whole.Global warming has sent temperatures rising around the world, with the United Nations saying earlier this month that 2019 was on course to be one of the three hottest years on record.Known for its notoriously harsh winters, Moscow has seen its warmest December in a century this year.While some flurries fell on Monday, the Russian capital — normally covered with a blanket of snow by mid-December — saw a largely snowless and cloudy last month of the year.The city’s ski resorts were closed and spring buds were beginning to show on trees — three or more months too early.Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been reluctant to acknowledge the link between human activity and global warming.At his traditional year-end annual news conference earlier this month, Putin insisted that “nobody knows” the causes of climate change.But he acknowledged the consequences of global warming could be catastrophic for a country that is one of the world’s biggest producers of carbon fuel and with a fifth of its land within the Arctic circle.Putin said that the rate of warming for Russia was 2.5 percent higher than elsewhere on the planet.And “for our country, this process is very serious,” he said.   

Sudanese-American Player Promotes Wheelchair Basketball in South Sudan

Wheelchair basketball is growing in popularity in South Sudan, offering hope for athletes with disabilities, some of whom lost legs from unexploded ordnance left from decades of conflict. U.S. professional wheelchair basketball players, including Sudanese American Malat Wei, this month helped eighty South Sudanese players take part in a week-long training program and tournament, as Sheila Ponnie reports from Juba.

‘Star Wars’ Stays Aloft to Again Top North American Box Office

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” stayed on a strong glide path in North American theaters, taking in an estimated $73.6 million for the three-day weekend, industry watcher Exhibitor Relations reported Sunday.The Disney film, marketed as a grand finale of the nine-film “Skywalker Saga,” has had mixed reviews and was down considerably from last weekend’s lofty $177.4 million opening.But it has compiled a strong domestic total of $364.5 million.It again maintained a big lead over the No. 2 film, Sony’s “Jumanji: The Next Level,” an action sequel starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart, which had $34.4 million in North American ticket sales for the Friday-through-Sunday period.In third for the second straight week was Disney’s “Frozen II,” at $17 million. The animated musical film has Broadway star Idina Menzel voicing Queen Elsa in her latest adventures.Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women” has been brought to the screen many times — no fewer than seven, by Variety’s count — but the new version from director Greta Gerwig has drawn strong reviews and netted $16.2 million to place fourth in its debut this weekend.The film stars Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet, Emma Watson and Laura Dern, in the story of the joys and struggles of four sisters during the US Civil War.In fifth was new Fox/Disney release “Spies in Disguise,” at $13.4 million. The animated children’s film features the voices of Will Smith and Tom Holland.Rounding out the top 10 were:”Knives Out” ($9.9 million)”Uncut Gems” ($9.4 million)”Bombshell” ($4.8 million)”Cats” ($4.8 million)”Richard Jewell” ($3 million)

Monitoring Agency: DRC Ebola Death Toll 2,231 to Date

A total of 2,231 people have died out of 3,373 declared cases of Ebola in the current epidemic in the DR Congo, according to the agency overseeing the response, health officials said Sunday.Deadly unrest in the fragile state has hampered the fight against the disease during the latest epidemic, which broke out on August 1, 2018, with the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri particularly badly hit.Both areas, beset by violence for two decades, have seen repeated attacks on Ebola health workers by dozens of armed groups as well as on health sites set up to treat victims.More than 200 civilians have been killed in the troubled east since November in clashes blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militia group of Ugandan origin which officials blame for a string of massacres in recent weeks.Health authorities meanwhile said Sunday that 341 suspected Ebola cases were being investigated, a day after the Multisectoral Committee for Epidemic Response (CMRE) monitoring the disease unveiled its latest batch of data Saturday.The current epidemic is the tenth overall and the second deadliest on record since a 2014-16 outbreak struck west Africa, killing more than 11,300.  

Politics of Climate Change Got More Complicated in 2019

2019 was the year of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and an uptick in climate action pledges by governments across the globe. 
From Britain to Germany, Europe’s mainstream party leaders scrambled to respond to a surge in electoral support for Green parties — and to growing public anxiety about the possible impact of climate change. 
During European Parliament elections in June, 48 percent of voters identified climate change as their top worry. Opinion polls in Germany for some weeks of 2019 put the Greens ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s storied Christian Democratic Party, which, along with its junior partner in the country’s governing coalition, has been racing to sharpen climate policies. 
 British moveIn Britain, the ruling Conservatives announced a hugely ambitious carbon reduction plan, enshrining into law a pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, making Britain the first major economy to do so. Some smaller countries, including Finland and Norway, are earmarking dates earlier than 2050 to become net-zero greenhouse gas producers, but so far have not made their goals legally binding. 
In America, an alliance of 24 states and Puerto Rico promised to uphold the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate action, despite the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the international pact. 
Shouldn’t all these plans and pledges be music to ears of climate action activists and scientists? FILE – Activist Greta Thunberg holds a placard reading “School strike for the climate” during a demonstration against climate change outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, Nov. 30, 2018.Apparently not. On the eve of Christmas, Thunberg tweeted: “I hear many say 2019 was the year when the public woke up to the climate crisis. This is a misconception. A small but rapidly growing number of people have started to wake up to the climate crisis. This has only just begun. We’re still only scratching the surface.” 
For Thunberg, her guardians and loyalists, change can’t come fast enough, however wrenching and dislocating it might be. Governments aren’t doing enough and are failing to count their emissions accurately, they complain, and corporations are dragging their feet.  For activists, December’s Madrid climate change conference epitomized the foot-dragging and a failure to be truly aspirational in cutting emissions. For Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion activists in Britain and Australia, the key task for the Madrid gathering was to unveil ambitious new goals — and fossil-fuel-dependent countries, notably Brazil and Australia, flunked it, they say. Rich vs. poor
The rift between wealthy, developed nations and poorer, developing nations over who is going to pay for reducing greenhouse gas emissions also remained as wide as ever. And governments in Madrid stalled on agreeing on new regulations for carbon markets and the trading of carbon permits between countries for the offsetting of emissions, one of the most critical and contentious issues at the climate change conference. 
“In Madrid, the key polluting countries responsible for 80 percent of the world’s climate-wrecking emissions stood mute, while smaller countries announced they’ll work to drive down harmful emissions in the coming year,” said Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based climate action advocacy group. “World leaders dithered instead of taking stronger, critical action soon to reduce the global climate threat. They ignored dire scientific reports, worsening evidence of climate destruction and demands from millions of young people to protect their future.” FILE – The COP 25 conference center is seen in Madrid. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)For others, though, the Madrid conference symbolized how politically complicated it will be to deliver climate action — a complexity activists ignore and glide over, some analysts warn. The venue for the conference itself spoke to that. The meeting was scheduled to be held in Chile, but it had to be switched to Spain because of riots in the Latin American country over a “Green” hike in transit fares. 
And it wasn’t only in Chile that protesters were taking to the streets to complain about expensive Green policies that could make living standards plunge. In France, the Yellow Vests, drawn mainly from small towns, persisted with their demonstrations against the government of French President Emmanuel Macron, an agitation triggered initially by the imposition of higher eco-taxes on fuel. 
The year 2019 also saw strong resistance in Germany from motorists, as a well as automakers, to planned higher fuel prices and an abrupt shift to electric cars — yet another front in a political backlash to climate action. Tricky politics
For governments, even environmentally friendly ones, climate change poses a massive political dilemma, and 2019 brought that home. Impose the tax hikes and costly regulations scientists say are needed to lower emissions and move economies away from dependency on fossil fuels, and governments risk prompting a backlash, largely from lower-income workers and pensioners, who can ill afford to bear the expense. 
The alternative is to move slowly and risk blowback from climate action activists and their supporters among largely middle class and higher-income groups able to adapt with less hardship. Squaring the circle between those who demand fast-track climate-friendly measures and those who want to slow down and mitigate the impact of moving toward a low-carbon future isn’t going to be easy, say analysts. 
In Europe, Central European governments sense the acute political danger to them and have been resisting a European Union plan to join Britain in earmarking 2050 as the year the bloc has to be “net zero.”  FILE – Smoke rises from chimneys of the Turow power plant located by the Turow lignite coal mine near Bogatynia, Poland, Nov. 19, 2019.Poland has been especially vociferous in opposition. The country is heavily dependent on coal for its energy needs and more than a quarter-million Polish jobs are tied to the fossil fuel industry. Without coal, many towns in Poland will have no economic raison d’être. “You can’t expect Poland to leap to zero carbon in 30 years,” according to Marchin Nowak, a coal industry executive. 
While smaller developing countries fret that they will bear too much of the burden of climate action compared with richer nations, so, too, do those who already feel left behind in developed countries, fearing the costs and benefits of climate action will be unfairly placed on their shoulders. 2019 saw the opening salvos in this new political war over environmentalism. 

Widespread Mussel Die-Offs Worry Scientists

Scientists are scrambling to understand why thousands of dead mussels are turning up in several rivers across the United States, including one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The rapid decline of the pheasant shell mussel in Appalachia’s Clinch River may be part of a mass die-off, with consequences for entire ecosystems.Like White-nose syndrome, which has devastated North American bats, or chytrid disease, which has ravaged amphibian populations around the world, experts worry that the mussel deaths could be the beginning of a widespread species collapse. In this Oct. 17, 2019 photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, biologist Jordan Richard pries open a pheasant shell mussel from the Clinch River near Wallen Bend, Tenn.Unsung workersAs beloved woodland creatures go, freshwater mussels are near the bottom of the list. But they perform a critical service. One of these unheralded bivalves can filter roughly 40 liters of water per day, removing algae, bacteria, chemicals, silt and other undesirables from waterways.They clean the water for everything else that lives in or depends on unpolluted rivers and streams, from fish and plants to city water supplies. “Mussels are the Rodney Dangerfield of wildlife,” said Tony Goldberg, a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin. “They don’t get no respect,” he added, referencing a quote by the  U.S. comedian. “They do so much and we don’t even know they’re there,” Goldberg added.The Clinch River, flowing through the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and Tennessee, is home to 46 species of freshwater mussels, along with 133 fish species. 
Over the last three years, populations of the pheasant shell mussel, one of the larger and more abundant species, have tumbled. “We go out in the river and see hundreds if not thousands of dead and dying mussels scattered all over the mussel shoals,” said Jordan Richard, endangered species biologist with the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Richard says one stretch of river his group studies has lost 85% of its pheasant shells since 2016. International mysteryResearchers in Ohio, North Carolina, Oregon and elsewhere are reporting mass mussel die-offs, too. Some European scientists say they may be seeing the same thing.It’s not clear why it’s happening. While pollution, dam building and invasive species all have taken a toll on mussels around the world, Richard says the current die-offs look different.”There’s this specific subset of mystery cases where we have a lot of different kinds of mussels living in the same place together, and then one species suddenly just drops out and you see them all dying very rapidly,” he said. That sounds like a disease. That’s why Goldberg is involved. As a wildlife disease hunter, he has studied mysterious deaths of  largemouth bass, West Nile virus in American robins, chimps catching colds from people, and more.But unlike White-nose syndrome or  chytrid disease, in which a single pathogen has wiped out millions of creatures across vast distances, Goldberg does not think a single germ is responsible for all the mussel die-offs. Instead, he thinks something else may be weakening the mussels and making them susceptible to infection.”There’s probably some underlying ultimate cause, like climate change or disturbance of habitat near rivers. Something is linking these that we can’t figure out yet,” he said.Mussels are having a tough time even without any possible new disease, Richard said, with increasing weather extremes from climate change.”They’ve adapted to periods of drought and periods of flood, and they can recover from that,” he said. “But when you suddenly have these crazy events back to back to back, mix that with water quality changes, pollution, river  impoundments, all that — that just takes a toll on mussels in general. “And then now, if we’re looking at a potential emerging disease issue,” that could be the last straw, he said.

US Astronaut Sets Record for Longest Spaceflight by a Woman

A U.S. astronaut set a record Saturday for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, breaking the old mark of 288 days with about two months left in her mission.Christina Koch, a 40-year-old electrical engineer from Livingston, Montana, arrived at the International Space Station on March 14. She broke the record set by former space station commander Peggy Whitson in 2016-2017.Koch is expected to spend a total of 328 days, or nearly 11 months, on board the space station before returning to Earth. Missions are typically six months, but NASA announced in April that it was extending her mission until February.The U.S. record for longest space flight is 340 days set by Scott Kelly in 2015-2016. The world record is 15 months set in the 1990s by a Russian cosmonaut aboard the former Mir space station.Koch’s extended mission will help NASA learn about the effects of long spaceflights, data that NASA officials have said is needed to support future deep space exploration missions to the Moon and Mars.Before breaking the endurance record for a woman in space, Koch set another milestone as part of the first all-female spacewalking team in October. It was Koch’s fourth spacewalk.She previously said she took a lot of helpful advice from Kelly’s 2017 autobiography “Endurance.”

Quick Response to Health Emergencies Protects Vulnerable Populations

The World Health Organization reports investigations into potential health threats and the quick response by WHO and partners to global emergencies has protected millions of the world’s most vulnerable people this year from disease and death.In 2019, the World Health Organization and partners have responded to 51 emergencies in more than 40 countries and territories and have investigated 440 potential health threats in 138 countries and territories.  After the headlines evoking these emergencies have faded away, the work of helping the victims of manmade and natural disasters recover carries on out of the media spotlight.  Executive Director of WHO Emergencies Program, Michael Ryan, says the unseen work of sustaining fragile health systems in conflicts and other emergencies does not stop.“In Bangladesh, we work with partners to address the health needs of nearly one million Rohingya refugees living in the crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar,” said Ryan. “The mortality rate in this highly vulnerable population has remained at low levels…These crude death rates remain well below what is considered acceptable in this situation…And, that is down to a lot of hard work by a lot of people.”  Ryan says WHO and partners have provided health services to more than 10 million people in Yemen.   He says over one million children have been protected from vaccine-preventable diseases and more than 100,000 have been treated for severe acute malnutrition.“In Uganda, Ebola transmission was prevented after cases crossed from DRC on two separate occasions,” said Ryan. “And, the preparedness work that has been going on in surrounding countries…Uganda, with the support of the international community spent $18 million on preparedness and stopped Ebola twice.” The World Health Organization estimates more than one billion dollars will be spent to root out the deadly Ebola virus, which has been circulating in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since August 2018.  The latest number of reported cases stands at 3,366, including 2,227 deaths.Other emergencies to which WHO has responded over the past year include the cyclone in Mozambique, conflict emergencies in Syria and South Sudan, floods in Iran, an earthquake in Albania, and a deadly measles outbreak on the small Pacific island of Samoa.