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Occupy Ukraine?

Last week NBC news reported that: “Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told Ukraine’s president early Wednesday that police action against encamped protesters calling for his resignation was ‘absolutely impermissible in a democratic society’.”

If Victoria Nuland believes this, why hasn’t she resigned from our government to protest the similar acts it took against Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters in late 2011 and early 2012?

As 2012 came to a close, a partially successful Freedom of Information Act legal action mounted by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) forced the release of heavily redacted FBI documents that outlined our governments’ plan to violently repress a lawful protest movement. The documents revealed that the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, local polices forces, and an array of cooperating governmental and private security firms, initiated a set of actions that dwarfed those taken so far by the police in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

A shadowy quasi-Governmental organization entitled the Domestic Security Alliance Council coordinated a national campaign to clear all the OWS encampments and to arrest those who resisted. Although a couple of years have passed, we should not forget that this led to attacks that resulted in thousands of arrests and hundreds of beatings. In the documents the FBI justified this response because, despite the OWS commitment to non-violence, the FBI resolved to treat the movement as a “potential terrorist threat.”

It has been apparent for several years that the post 9/11 “counter-terrorism” laws are now used mostly against domestic dissenters. Preventing terrorism is the justification for everything from ubiquitous NSA spying, to the militarization of small town police forces, while the courts look the other way as civil liberties become anachronisms. The transformation is almost complete. As far as the FBI and its buddies are concerned even those protesting peacefully against the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in our nation should be treated as potential terrorist threats.

Despite the obvious undemocratic nature of our domestic politics, I doubt the Assistant Secretary of State is the only member of our government willing to self-righteously proclaim the police tactics against the protesters in Kiev “totally impermissible in a democratic society.” While I do not condone the Ukrainian police conduct, unlike the OWS protesters, Ukrainian protesters have surrounded the seat of governmental power and are demanding regime change. That presents a more immediate and powerful threat to an elected government than the largely symbolic OWS occupations.

I’m unaware of any member of the Obama Administration complaining about the police in our country attacking the Occupiers for asserting their rights of free speech and assembly. It is hard to fathom how our officials can utter such hypocritical nonsense with straight faces. I’m waiting for them to come clean, and acknowledge that the harsh actions taken to destroy OWS were “totally impermissible in a democratic society.”

I fear I’ll have to wait an awfully long time.  Read More 
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Nelson Mandela in COINTELPRO’s Crosshairs

The mainstream media and our political leaders have been singing Nelson Mandela’s praises now that he is safely dead. Listening to them got me thinking about what would have been Nelson Mandela’s fate had he been a leader of the struggle for African-American rights in the United States.

During the late 1950’s and early 1970’s the FBI mounted a covert counter-intelligence program to combat the anti-war and civil rights movements entitled COINTELPRO. In the name of protecting our national security, COINTELPRO included psychological smear campaigns against leaders like Martin Luther King, and the targeted assassination of members of the Black Panther Party. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s politically powerful director, is reported to have said that a primary purpose of COINTELPRO was to ensure that no “black messiah” would be able to galvanize the “Negroes.” The FBI took this directive very seriously, among other things conspiring with the Chicago Police to murder Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. The role they played in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is less clear. How would they have responded to Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary at the head of an armed resistance movement. He was charged with sabotage aimed at overthrowing the existing order, a charge he did not deny. Rather than execute him, the South African Court sentenced him to life imprisonment. Perhaps those in charge of the apartheid regime felt it wiser to break Mandela in prison and use him to their advantage rather than risk martyring him. He was released after serving 27 years, 18 of them in the notorious Robben Island Prison. I doubt our court system would have spared his life. I am equally convinced that if, by some quirk, our courts had dealt Mandela a life sentence, he would never have been released. Leonard Peltier, Mumia abu Jamal and Oscar Lopez Rivera have all been imprisoned for much longer than Nelson Mandela. Our government shows no sign it will ever set them free.

However, if Nelson Mandela had been a domestic radical in the United States, I doubt that he would have gone on trial. The FBI would simply have had him assassinated.

And despite our leaders’ praise for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, our government has never revealed the complete truth of COINTELPRO or punished its perpetrators. Our government has never attempted reconciliation for carpet bombing and poisoning the Vietnamese people and their land. Today our government finds it more convenient to praise Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission than to empanel one here to deal with the war crimes and human rights abuses carried out by our leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo.

Perhaps this is why our leaders’ lionizing of Nelson Mandela has made me so nauseous.
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Mumia abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier

December 9th will mark the 32nd anniversary of Mumia abu Jamal’s imprisonment. Relentless agitation, coupled with good legal work, saved him from the executioner. Mumia is no longer on death row, but he still faces life in prison.

On a flight home from France in June 2001, after attending the First World Congress to Abolish the Death Penalty, I was seated next to a law student and we talked about Mumia’s case. The student and I were both involved in the movement to save Mumia’s life. At that time Mumia was still on Pennsylvania’s death row, convicted in 1982 of killing a Philadelphia policeman. I had recently read the several thousand-page transcript of his trial, which I found illuminating in light of extensive experience reading trial transcripts while serving two Massachusetts Appeals Court legal clerkships in the 1980’s.

Mumia’s lawyer, the late Leonard Weinglass, had a brilliant record. Weinglass had succeeded in reversing the death sentences of all of his seven previous death-row clients. Despite this, Mumia had lost every round in Pennsylvania State Court, but Weinglass would soon file Mumia’s first Federal District Court appeal.

Weinglass’s ability, coupled with the serious legal questions raised by the transcript I had read, gave me confidence that he would win some part of the Federal case. However, I expressed my concern to the law student that a smart federal judge might vacate the death sentence, but uphold the guilty verdict, leaving Mumia to spend the rest of life in prison. Despite the unfair trial and a mounting body of evidence that Mumia did not commit the crime, the powerful Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and almost all major Republican and Democratic state office holders were proclaiming his guilt. The FOP was actively lobbying for Mumia’s execution, which rendered it improbable that a Federal Court would overturn a verdict against a radical black male convicted of killing a white policeman. A smart judge also would do this because it would keep Mumia in prison, but make it more difficult for his supporters to continue the massive campaign for his release.

That’s what had happened in American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier’s case. Even though he’d been jailed for decades and it was widely known that Peltier did not kill the FBI agents, it had been difficult to maintain a large-scale movement on his behalf, because he did not face execution. Eventually the Federal Judge put Mumia in the same position as Leonard Peltier. He vacated the death sentence, but upheld the verdict.

Leonard Peltier has been jailed for five years longer than Mumia. Wikipedia lists his earliest projected release date as 2040. He’ll be 96 years old. After reading Mumia’s trial transcript I became convinced that after such an unfair trial no one deserved to spend 32 days in prison, let along 32 years, and rather than incarceration, Leonard Peltier should get the Nobel Peace Prize for his service to his people.

We should continue to agitate for the release of both Leonard Peltier and Mumia abu Jamal. The Commander-in-Chief of our global empire, our first African-American President, is unlikely to have the desire or the guts to pardon radical Native or African-American leaders convicted of killing white law enforcement officers. We must, however, continue to struggle on Mumia and Leonard’s behalf not only because they deserve to be free, but also because we are all diminished as long as they are incarcerated.  Read More 
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Strange Thanks

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Strange Fruit.

My adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, wrote the words and music to Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit. Abel, a high school English teacher with a passion for writing, reacted to a gruesome photograph of a lynching in late 1936, with a poem entitled “Bitter Fruit.” In 1937 or 1938 he set the poem to music and changed the title. Billie Holiday did not perform it until 1939. Strange Fruit was the composition my father was most proud of, but one that he never lived with easily. In 1940, Abel was called before New York State’s Rapp-Coudert Committee, a legislative commission attempting to root out communist teachers, and asked if the Communist Party ordered him to write the song.

Later, Billie Holiday claimed in her ghost-written autobiography that she set Abel’s poem to music. To this day you can find online references to Strange Fruit that attribute its words to Abel Meeropol and music to Billie Holiday. Growing up in the Meeropol household I witnessed Abel’s frustration at his inability to correct this misperception.

But Abel was even more troubled by the song’s eclipse. It was widely recognized in the 1940’s, but in the great red scare of the 1950’s, it almost disappeared from the public arena. In fact, by the time Abel died in 1986 the song had faded into relative obscurity. This was one of Abel’s biggest regrets.

But the strange fruit allusion - lynched bodies hanging from trees – was one of genius. It had gotten under our culture’s skin, and as time went on, it seeped out of its pores.

The song’s rebirth was slow at first, recorded out of the country or at the edges of acceptability. The Jamaican group UB40 taped it in 1980. Sting performed it on an album celebrating Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary in 1986, and the punk group, Siouxsie and the Banshees, followed suit in 1987. Cassandra Wilson introduced Strange Fruit to a new generation in her widely acclaimed debut album in 1995. In 2000, Time Magazine named it the “song of the century” and Daivd Margolick’s book, Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, sold well. That was followed by Joel Katz’s film documentary about the song, in 2002.

David Margolick wrote that although Abel wrote Strange Fruit, he was best known for adopting my brother and me. I don’t know if that was ever the case, but it certainly has not been so for the last decade. Nowadays there are more online references to Abel Meeropol as the author of Strange Fruit, who “by the way,” also adopted the son’s of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, than to any other member of our family.

2013 has seen the Strange Fruit concept, explode. Kanye West’s sampling of Nina Simone’s version in his Yeezus CD made it an internet sensation. Almost every week I hear about new recordings, concert performances, musicals, dances and even art exhibits inspired by the song. The November 20th episode of the TV series Criminal Minds, which ironically features heroic FBI agents, was entitled “Strange Fruit.” It has even been used as a verb. To “strange fruit” someone, is to do what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin.

Close to 80 years after Abel wrote those 97 potent words (that’s right, the entire song contains less than 100 words), the pot is in full boil. I am so thankful for Abel’s brilliant creation because Strange Fruit’s growing power gives me hope. The pen just could be mightier than the sword after all. Read More 
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Who is the Worst Polluter?

It is commonly repeated that coal-fired power plants have the worst carbon footprint in the United States. We know this because the coal industry is listed annually in the federal government’s environmental reports as the industry with the most CO2 emissions. However, it is not the case.

The United States Department of Defense has a carbon footprint that is much greater than that of the coal industry. And, as Project Censored has reported, this fact has been consistently ignored and/or covered up by our government and media. []

One of the reasons the public does not know about our military’s abysmal environmental record is because, for national security reasons, the pentagon is exempt from all EPA reporting requirements. And both the Bush and Obama Administrations have insisted that our military not be included in any international climate agreements. This is despite of the fact that our armed forces are continually engaged in massive military operations all over the world, have troops on the ground and bases in dozens of countries, on top of six thousand domestic facilities.

It will surprise no one that despite some recent reports of pentagon-directed efforts at conservation, reducing carbon emissions does not appear to be a priority of the military. Steve Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International, states in the Project Censored article that “The Iraq war was responsible for at least 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents from March 2003 through December 2007.” (Project Censored, quoting.) It is hard even to imagine the scale of the pollutants spewed from every military vehicle; including Humvees, tanks, aircraft carriers, bombers and fighter jets to name just a few.

I’m aware of no organized effort of those fighting against climate change to protest our military’s CO2 output. The realization, however, that each ounce of fuel the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and their private contractors burn remains uncounted in any environmental impact statement worldwide should give climate-change activists pause. If we wish to significantly slow down, let alone reverse, the escalating pace of global warming, we can no longer afford to ignore the United States military.

In addition, green activists and those working to combat militarism are natural allies. Not only is war wrong, it is destroying our planet’s habitability; environmental sustainability is not possible as long as the guns keep firing.

Every week we see more evidence that we must build a mass movement to challenge the current dominance of those who are destroying our habitat. The Green and Peace movements are two key building blocks of the mass movement we so desperately need. An alliance between them is a coalescence whose time has come.
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The New Normal

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that the Weather Channel is my favorite TV station. Recently I noticed that when focusing on issues related to climate change, Weather Channel reporters characterized increased weather fluctuations as “the new normal.” While I’m glad that the Weather Channel is finally addressing global warming, “the new normal” phrase is problematic.

I don’t like the label because it gives the impression that we’ve moved from one relatively constant state to another. When, as a teenager, I first started studying climate seriously, I learned that when TV weather forecasters predicted below normal temperatures for the coming week, “normal” referred to average temperatures during that week over the last 30 years. Thus, unlike our understanding of normal body temperature (98.6), normal weather was not a constant, but changeable over time. You could say that though our climate for the first seven decades of the 20th century was relatively constant, there is no such thing as normal weather. Some meteorologists have tried to be more accurate by substituting the word average for normal, but I think the distinction is lost on most people.

Who cares, you may wonder, besides weather-obsessed nerds like me. Accurately describing future climatic change, however, is critical to understanding the challenges we will face over the next 50 years. A discussion I had with a friend over lunch a few weeks ago illustrates this.

We were disagreeing about the impact of global warming on the fruitfulness of the planet. I remarked that changing weather patterns threatened to significantly decrease earth’s productive capacity. Given the extent of hunger today, cutting the world’s fertility by 50% would be a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions. He responded that climate change wouldn’t necessarily decrease the global food supply. He argued that while, as temperatures warmed, China might grow less rice, Canada and Russia would grow more wheat.

I don’t know enough to balance a decline in Chinese rice production with an increase in Canadian wheat harvests, but my friend’s prediction demonstrates the danger of the concept of moving from the old to a new normal state. This treats global warming as akin to climbing steps. You progress from a lower flat surface to the next higher one, and this concept does not capture the essence of Global Warming. We have entered a rapidly changing environment and we must live with an increasingly dynamic process. The climate won’t plateau after it has gotten a few degrees warmer. The conditions on the Canadian prairies may favor increased wheat harvests for a few years, but those conditions will keep changing.

Moreover, the concept of the new normal does not take into account growing systemic volatility. The increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere acts as insulation trapping energy and this excess power finds an outlet in bigger disturbances. We’ll see more instability resulting in unprecedented floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes. Such conditions are not conducive to sustaining more bountiful harvests anywhere.

Perhaps unprecedented weather is what the folks at the Weather Channel mean by the “new normal.” But labeling as “normal” phenomena that have no norm is worthless. It obfuscates rather than clarifies, and we need as much clarity as we can get as we face this challenge.
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The Knowledge That Others Will Carry On

In her final hours my mother, Ethel Rosenberg, wrote, for her and Julius: “[W]e were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us.” Many years later, these words sparked the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC).

Last weekend I spoke in Toronto at a reception to re-launch the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund (MPF). The MPF is similar to the Rosenberg Fund and was, for a number of years, an RFC Canadian sub-fund. Now, after being taken under the tax-exempt wing of the Toronto-based Winchevsky Centre of the United Jewish People's Order, it was finally 100% Canadian.

Mary Pitawanakwat, a First Nations Ojibway woman, was hired by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 1979. In 1984, she filed suit because, among other things, her boss called native people’s “savages” and sexually harassed her. In response, her supervisor claimed he was only testing the “smaller personal space” of natives. In 1986 the Commission fired her for “incompetence.” She spent the rest of her life battling to vindicate her rights. By the time she won her legal claim she was dying of breast cancer. She continued to organize on behalf of others until she died at the age of 45, confident that the struggle would continue.

Her fight took a toll on her teenaged children. Mary did what she could to protect Brock and Robyn, including applying for RFC support. Although we do not normally give grants outside of the United States, the RFC made an exception in her case.

Mary was already quite ill when I met her, but she left me inspired with her powerful spirit of resistance. In the 18 years since, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Brock and Robyn, as they became an important part of the RFC community.

Speaking before many supporters last Sunday, including Brock, Robyn, their partners, and their five children (Robyn has three, Brock has two), my mother’s final words echoed. Those words are rich in political, social and personal meaning. Some view them as a political prediction, but I read in them an expression of faith that a community would protect and guide my brother and me. She was expressing her trust that despite the great loss their deaths would cause us, we would find our own way and ultimately benefit from our parents’ resistance.

I believe that the lives of my brother and me, of our children and now our grandchildren, bear witness to that trust. Visiting with Brock and Robyn, and their families gave me a profound sense that it was happening again. Mary’s family still lived with the great pain of her loss, but Brock and Robyn have benefited from her legacy, just as I have benefited from my parents’. Mary’s children are leading loving and productive lives, and raising wonderful children. They are proof that Mary’s spirit survives.

Whatever else is wrong with human society, this one thing is decidedly right. I thank my parents, Mary, Robyn and Brock for this priceless gift.

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“Game Over” Language: A Good Idea?

Bill McKibben is probably the best known environmental activist in the country., the organization he started, has taken the lead in the campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. His justification for this focus is that if the pipeline is built, transporting, refining and burning “the dirtiest oil on earth” will mean “game over” for containing catastrophic global warming. For more information visit

McKibben’s effort to goad masses of people into action is laudable and essential. It is encouraging that ten of thousands are jumping on his band wagon. Acting to achieve clear-cut goals sure beats wringing our hands in anguish over the steadily deteriorating situation.

Aside from having well defined adversaries (TransCanada Corporation, TD Bank North) and the precise objective of stopping construction of a physical object, the effort has the advantage of forcing President Obama to show his environmental hand. He has the power to approve the pipeline or stop it in its tracks. This last is illuminating. Although Obama is delaying his decision, at some point he will come off the fence and either halt a major ecological nightmare or show those on the left who still give him grudging support that his environmental policies are totally unacceptable.

However, there is a downside to putting so much emphasis on one battle. A thoughtful article entitled “The Climate Movement’s Pipeline Preoccupation” by members of Rising Tide North America outlines several pitfalls of this strategy. The quote below highlights a couple of them.

“This escalation and level of engagement [by tens of thousands] is inspiring. But the absolutist ‘game over’ language chances to lose many of them. If Obama approves the … pipeline, what’s to stop many from thinking that this is in fact ‘game over’ for the climate? And if Obama rejects [it], what’s to stop many from thinking that the climate crisis is therefore solved. We need those using the ‘game over’ rhetoric to lay out the climate crisis’ root causes – because just one project is not the end of humanity, [and] stopping one project will not stop runaway climate change.’

Single-mindedness is problematic when tackling a multifaceted global crisis. Just days ago several oil companies won the right to develop a deep-water field off the Brazilian coast that may hold 12 billion barrels of oil. The environmental damage that could result from extracting that much oil from beneath the ocean floor, and the carbon emissions caused by burning it, may pose a greater threat than the XL pipeline.

This is complicated and McKibben sometimes appears to argue both for and against a unitary focus on the pipeline. In a just-published article he decries a broad range of Obama’s energy policies: “His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Artic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking. [H]is green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane – another dangerous greenhouse gas - than any man in history.”

How do we balance the use of engaging, snappy slogans like “game over” with more in-depth analyses of the facets and root causes of the problem. We risk scaring people off by describing the enormity of the challenge, but those who gain a fuller understanding will probably be more effective at recruiting others and more deeply committed for the long term.

We’ve wrestled with this kind of strategic complexity for a long time. I don’t have simple answers and I welcome your thoughts.
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Climate Change: Adaptation or Prevention

Elli and I attended the Western Massachusetts Climate Justice Conference last month. It was designed to bridge the class divide between those working to stop global warming, and those struggling for economic justice. I was impressed with the age, race and class diversity of the more than 250 participants who included both middle-class professionals and college students who live in the smaller towns of our area, and poorer people, many of color, concentrated in the cities of Springfield and Holyoke. It was a very encouraging start to what hopefully will be a region-wide alliance of people who realize that health, environment, climate and economic justice are inextricably entwined.

But bridging class and race gaps is neither simple nor easy. Before the conference one of the organizers contacted the director of a local group that is focused on protecting the water quality of the Connecticut River. The organizer wanted to discuss participation in the conference. She was told that this group had decided not to work on issues around preventing climate change, but instead would focus their energies on mitigating the damage caused by - and adapting to - global warming.

It turns out that the Keystone Pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, provides some of that group’s funds. I don’t know how much impact this funding has had on the organization’s decision not to work directly against climate change, but I’m concerned that this environmental group is avoiding work on climate change prevention because it would force them to take a strong position against the pipeline.

This interaction got me thinking more generally about climate change “prevention” strategies verses “mitigation” or “adaptation.” (Perhaps “adaptation” is a better word than “mitigation.” The latter is ambiguous. Efforts focused on mitigating global warming can contribute to its prevention, but efforts designed only to lessen the damage merely try to adjust to climate change.)

There is a strong class bias built into strategies that primarily promote adaptation. Adaptation is expensive. The Netherlands is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Much of their country lies below sea level and global warming is causing sea level to rise. They have committed to spending 140 billion dollars to raise the gargantuan levies that protect them. Many millions more are threatened by rising sea levels in Bangladesh, but they can’t afford such public works. That nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product in 2012 was only 115.6 billion dollars.

Those of us who live in wealthier communities have more resources to help us adapt: to clean up rivers or toxic waste sites or set aside nature preserves. But adaptation is at best a short term and piece-meal approach. It will protect some people and some resources, but it is more likely to bypass the most vulnerable, and will never solve a planetary problem. This is not to say we should ignore the threats to residents of the Netherlands, Bangladesh, or Staten Island for that matter, but efforts to protect them must complement rather than compete with prevention work.

We’ve reached the point where we must always take the big picture into account. To adjust the phrase, we must act both locally and globally. And that means, among other things, that overcoming our class differences has become essential. That’s why the Springfield Conference was so important.  Read More 
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Out on a Limb, Take three

"Out on a Limb" started as a weekly column I wrote in my college newspaper, "The Earlham Post," in the mid-1960’s. I got a kick out of crafting weekly essays, especially since the views I presented often scandalized my readership. I think the paper’s editor would have fired me if the controversies I provoked hadn’t increased student interest. After one column, Earlham’s President called me into his office and suggested that I transfer. I did.

In 2009, I revived the decades-old title for my Executive Director’s blog on the Rosenberg Fund for Children website. I changed it to "Out on a Limb Together," adding the word “together” because although my views remained well to the left of the mainstream, I was more in tune with the RFC community I was addressing than my college readership. Frankly, I wasn’t at all sure I’d like blogging, but after posting more than 200 essays I didn’t want to stop.

So this is take three. I handed the Executive Director job to my daughter Jenn a few weeks ago, and I’m anxious to start writing commentary once again. This time, I’ll call it "Still Out on a Limb." I plan to blog about human rights, civil liberties, discrimination and economic justice. But I’ve also become increasingly concerned about how we interact with our natural world. I became fascinated with the weather when I was eight years old, and now am studying climate change and resource depletion. I am deeply worried about how these issues will impact my grandchildren’s quality of life and want to engage in what may be the most important political struggle of the coming decades.

Please join me in my third venture. I welcome your comments.  Read More 
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