Monthly Archives: June 2014

Bombast

An American court lobbed a bombshell into the culture wars today, by ruling that some United States corporations have religious rights. My first notice of the decision was an email alert from the New York Times:

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Hobby Lobby in Stow, Ohio. Photo: DangApricot, Creative Commons/Wikimedia

“The Supreme Court has ruled on whether for-profit corporations may advance claims based on religious freedom. Our reporters are reading the decision and will update this article as soon as they feel confident about its basic meaning. (Emphasis is mine.)

The restraint in that simple message was, oddly, a relief.

Civility and sanity drown a bit more every day in maelstroms formed by instant explosive rage smashing into gloating triumph. They occur everywhere in the global 24/7 new cycle, but America’s culture wars are especially loud, vicious, and polarizing. Restraint such as by the Times —  of actually reading the decision, and refraining from analysis until “confident about its basic meaning” — helps defuse the bombast of instant analysis. Sage judgement matters as much in journalism as in politics, and I consider the Times one of the few journalism outfits worth a subscription price.

But the best antidote to the bombast, and a whole lot else, is thinking for oneself. The same Internet that fuels outrage also opens up a world of information. Nobody should take anyone’s word on today’s decision, whether they’re a Fox News commenter, an Al Jazeera reporter, a New York Times analyst, or the countless partisans, paid lobbyists, ideologues or religious leaders. The decision is published here, on the court web site, for those willing to sift through the legalese, glean the tension between every line, think, and maybe even ask: is this really how we want to run our world?

Here’s a brief summary of who, what, when and why — along with select excerpts of the ruling written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., and the dissenting opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  

BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL. v. HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC., ET AL.

The court heard the case on March 25, and released its 5-4 split ruling on June 30. A majority of conservative judges overruled the liberal minority. 

The essence:

Citing their personal religious beliefs, owners of corporations who self-identify as Christians won their battle against government efforts to make companies pay for contraceptives as part of their employees’ health benefits — especially contraceptives that disrupt pregnancy, which the business owners consider tantamount to abortion. Religious organizations were already exempt from the requirement to pay. The court ruled: “Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.”

The cause:

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the Government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” … As amended by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 … RFRA covers “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.”

The background: 

United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations require employers group health plans to pay their employee costs for 20 contraceptive methods, wrote Alito, “including the four that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. Religious employers, such as churches, are exempt from this contraceptive mandate. HHS has also effectively exempted religious nonprofit organizations with religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services. Under this accommodation, the insurance issuer must exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer’s plan and provide plan participants with separate payments for contraceptive services without imposing any cost- sharing requirements on the employer, its insurance plan, or its employee beneficiaries.”

“In these cases, the owners of three closely-held for-profit corporations have sincere Christian beliefs that life begins at conception and that it would violate their religion to facilitate access to contraceptive drugs or devices that operate after that point. In separate actions, they sued HHS and other federal officials and agencies (collectively HHS) under RFRA and the Free Exercise Clause, seeking to enjoin application of the contraceptive mandate insofar as it requires them to provide health coverage for the four objectionable contraceptives.”

The cases came together in America’s top court after conflicting rulings by lower courts. One court previously ruled that “a for-profit corporation could not “engage in religious exercise” … and said the (insurance coverage) mandate was not an imposition on a corporation’s owners. Another court ruled that businesses are “persons” and the contraceptive mandate “substantially burdened (the company owners’) exercise of religion. It said no compelling interest had been made in favour of the insurance requirement or, alternatively, if there were a compelling governmental interest, the health department had failed to prove a “least restrictive means” of furthering it.

The majority ruling: 

Held: As applied to closely held corporations, the HHS regulations imposing the contraceptive mandate violate RFRA….

(a) RFRA applies to regulations that govern the activities of closely held for-profit corporations …

(1) HHS argues that the companies cannot sue because they are for-profit corporations, and that the owners cannot sue because the regulations apply only to the companies, but that would leave merchants with a difficult choice: give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations. RFRA’s text shows that Congress designed the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice. It employed the familiar legal fiction of including corporations within RFRA’s definition of “persons,” but the purpose of extending rights to corporations is to protect the rights of people associated with the corporation, including shareholders, officers, and employees. Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned in her dissenting opinion of wide and unintended repercussions of the ruling, and noted  why religious exemptions to American laws have never before been extended to any entity operating in “the commercial, profit-making world:”

“The reason why is hardly obscure. Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community. Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations … (the U.S.) requires reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious exercise, but such accommodation must not come “at the expense of other[ employees]”). The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention …

The Court’s determination that RFRA extends to for- profit corporations is bound to have untoward effects. Although the Court attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations, its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private … The Court does not even begin to explain how one might go about ascertaining the religious scruples of a corporation where shares are sold to the public. … claims will proliferate, for the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood — combined with its other errors in construing RFRA — invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith …

~~~

— Deborah Jones

 

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The DICEy Flaws in Carbon Models: Chris Wood

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German coal power plant. Photo: Arnold Paul, Creative Commons

Economists Simon Dietz and Nicholas Stern have published some startling findings about the current DICEy models used to estimate the social price of carbon. Chris Wood explains in today’s Natural Security column, excerpt here:

A common line of attack for the propagandists, and the misled who imagine we are not altering Earth’s climate, is that climate projections rely on models. Models! Not the real thing. Why, they could be as made-up as a model of the space ship Enterprise! Pure fiction. 

Of course, the richly researched ‘models’ that forecast where our climate is headed with increasing precision, are nothing of the sort. They are, in essence, mathematical mashups of the observed relationships that drive the real climate: how ocean currents move heat from here to there; how air masses transport moisture and more heat; how both are transferred where air and water, or air and land, meet; how different amounts of atmospheric gasses contain or release more heat from the planet. These relationships aren’t made up; they’re dictated by nature. And the models’ generally close match with reality, when ‘run’ against the known past, confirms their accuracy.

But there’s another kind of climate model. It’s one that tries to marry what scientists know about the dynamics of the global climate, to the very similar sorts of mathematical models that economists create to describe the marketplace. It’s called a “Dynamic Integrated Climate Economy” model — DICE. Its point is to determine just how much damage future climate change will really do to the economy — and therefore how much money it’s worth spending today to avoid that damage …

It turns out that the “industry standard” for such models today, the one that guides most government and large business decisions about how seriously to take climate change, takes some remarkable, and dangerously misleading short-cuts  …. read more (subscription required*)

*Log in on the top right of each page, or click here to purchase a subscription or a $1 site day pass, to read Wood’s column:

The Climate Models are Wrong!  (Just not the models you think)

Click here for Chris Wood’s’s page, with all of his columns for F&O.

*Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves and is entirely funded by modest reader payments. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Why?

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On the EU and David Cameron’s Base

360px-David_Cameron_officialDavid Cameron’s campaign to prevent the election of  Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission was a piece of sound and fury, writes International Affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe. His defeat would seem, on the surface, conclusive — except when considered as a work of domestic politicking. An excerpt of Manthorpe’s column:

The humiliating defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron in the election for the European Union’s top bureaucrat is probably the best thing that could have happened to him.

Cameron took a calculated risk in the fallout from May’s elections for members of the European Parliament, in which right wing anti-EU parties including the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made unprecedented gains.

The results made Cameron’s credibility look threadbare, especially his pledge to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU. Cameron wants to grab back powers over national policy-making and legislation that have been handed over to Brussels. His plan is to put the results to a clear yes or no referendum in Britain in 2017, after the next general election, due in May next year.

But recent local and European elections in Britain show that a gathering tide of voters, both Conservatives and supporters of the opposition New Labour party, are so fed up with the intrusive nannyism of Brussels … read more (subscription required*)

*Log in on the top right of each page (or click here to purchase a subscription or a $1 site day pass) to read:

Cameron courts “heroic defeat” by European leaders

Jonathan Manthorpe’s columnist page is here.

 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? If you’d like to support our journalism, for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1.) 

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Yesterday’s Man: Canada’s Peter MacKay

305px-Peter_MacKay_cropCanadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay has been the subject of a flurry of news stories, and almost as many satire pieces, about anti-woman comments  he is alleged to have made. Writer Charles Mandel responds with an opinion column for F&O’s THINK/Loose Leaf section:

Peter MacKay is yesterday’s man. 

According to Canada’s Justice Minister, women are dedicated moms and caregivers around the clock who are busy changing diapers, packing lunches and dropping the kids off at daycare. In contrast, men are dedicated fathers who are shaping the minds of the next generation.

This old-fashioned, blatantly sexist attitude recently surfaced in a pair of emails MacKay sent to his staff on the occasions of Mother’s and Father’s Days. Justice department employees apparently sent the emails to Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC.

The Mother’s Day email lauded women for having “two full-time jobs: as hard-working department of justice employees during business hours, and as dedicated moms and caregivers … read more (column free of charge):

Canada’s Justice Minister is Yesterday’s Man

 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? If you’d like to support our journalism, for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1.) 

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Ruling Alters Canada’s Balance of Native Rights

Cattle drive on the Chilcotin Highway, British Columbia. Photo Deborah Jones © 2012

Cattle drive on the Chilcotin Highway, British Columbia. Photo Deborah Jones © 2012

Canada’s top court greatly expanded aboriginal rights in Canada’s westernmost province, in what may stand as a landmark decision affecting control of a vast swath of land and resources, in British Columbia and beyond.

The case, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, was sparked in 1983 when the provincial government licenced a commercial company to log the Chilcotin. The licence was disputed by the Chilcotin residents who lived there long before the mid 2800s when — without their consent — England claimed the land as a colony, and named it British Columbia.

Today the Supreme Court of Canada granted a historic “declaration of Aboriginal title,” and ruled the province of British Columbia had breached its duty to consult with the Tsilhqot’in Nation on the licence.

The ruling matters greatly because the logging dispute is just one of a myriad of specific complaints embedded in hundreds of historic, sweeping and unresolved aboriginal claims that cover almost the entire province. Today’s decision will have an impact on each and every one of them …. read more (this Dispatch, in Justice, is free of charge):

Canadian Court Expands Aboriginal Rights 

 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? If you’d like to support our journalism, for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1.) 

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Affiliation and Dual Passports Complicate Journalist’s Case

passport“A Canadian is a Canadian and deserving of diplomatic protection, whatever one thinks of his or her affiliations,” writes  International Affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe. Today’s column deals with an Egyptian court’s sentences of three journalists this week. Two complications plague the controversial case: the tricky issue of dual citizenship, and their employment by Al Jazeera, a news outlet whose English service professionalism is widely respected, but not in any way matched by its controversial Arabic service. An excerpt:

It’s easy and entirely justifiable to let loose an outraged rant at the prison sentences handed down in Egypt to three Al Jazeera journalists, including Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, after a piece of judicial theatre so farcical it denigrates the name of kangaroo courts.

But whether Fahmy, the acting bureau chief in Egypt for the Al Jazeera television network, Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed deserve more consideration than the thousands of other people caught up in the Middle East power struggle is a more difficult question.

Like all journalists operation in conflict zones, they took measured risks in order to do their jobs. That doesn’t mean they are the authors of their own fate, but it does mean they knew what they were getting into, or should have done.

The three were arrested on December 29 last year at Cairo’s Marriott hotel where they had set up a temporary office while they reported on protests against the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood administration of President Mohammed Morsi the previous July. After the coup, the military declared the brotherhood a terrorist group. The three Al Jazeera men were accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, broadcasting “false news,” and undermining Egypt’s national security by suggesting the country was on the brink of civil war … read more (subscription required*)

*Log in on the top right of each page (or click here to purchase a subscription or a $1 site day pass) to read:

Dual Citizenship no Guarantee of Protection

For deeper background on the dynamics surrounding Egypt’s government, Al Jazeera, and the state of Qatar – which owns Al Jazeera – read Manthorpe’s column earlier this month, in which he explains how “from being the poster boy for a modernizing Middle East, the filthy rich Gulf state of Qatar has become a menace:”

Soccer bribery is the least of Qatar’s sins

Jonathan Manthorpe’s columnist page is here.

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? If you’d like to support our journalism, for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1.) 

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Canada’s Climate: Last Chance Tourism

By CHRIS WOOD 

More or less as yesterday’s blog post (on Risky Business and Climate-Smart Development) was emerging from my keyboard, Canada’s federal government very quietly uploaded to the website of the Department of Natural Resources the closest thing Canadians have seen since 2008 to a comprehensive survey of Canada’s climate change vulnerabilities. In fact, Canada in a Changing Climate is avowedly an update on that earlier report — with little of significance added. 

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Polar bears play-fighting. Creative Commons, via Wikimedia

The nearly 300-page report confirms that all the climate trends apparent in 2008 continue: Canada is getting warmer and wetter — although droughts can still occur; big storms are more common; ice and snow are melting pretty much everywhere. “Further changes in climate are inevitable.” Adaptation is necessary, and holds opportunities for some but, “there will also be cases where maintaining current activities is not feasible and/or cost-effective.”

The report examines three economic sectors likely to be the most immediately affected by climate change: farming, fishing and certain industries. Its findings are underwhelming. The report is heavy on contextual statistics — the value of mineral production by province in 2010 — and generalized forward-looking observations not much changed since 1989. It better connects some of the dots from climate change effects to impacts on specific sectors’ activities. But its evidence is anecdotal (Diavik Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories spent an extra $11 million flying in fuel because its ice road melted early), and it makes no attempt to estimate aggregate future costs or opportunities across industries.

A clear take-away however, is that Canada is dragging its feet in preparing for a changed climate. The report admits it can find “relatively few examples of concrete, on-the-ground adaptation measures being implemented specifically to reduce vulnerability to projected changes in climate.”

The report offers case studies of adaptation efforts it has found. The federal government is notable by the near-absence of its initiatives. (Unless you get excited by its examining tax changes that might help farmers weather even wilder weather.)

Nonetheless there is evidence of the authors’ suppressed yearning for a more activist government role. It offers as a case study of successful historic adaptation the Depression-era Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act (passed under the Conservative government of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, as it happened), which provided federal support to reclaim farmland devastated by drought and wind erosion.

“Several factors can help accelerate the transition between awareness [of climate threat] and action,” the authors note, “including leadership, targeted awareness-raising and supportive strategies or policies.” Here, they manage to imply, the federal government has “opportunities.”

On the other hand, the report does hold some gems of perspective revealed, surely, only when resource researchers are obliged to describe their world in terms they hope that leaders blinded to all but book-to-market variables might understand.

Among the potential negative impacts from climate change on Canada’s “destination image,” the authors report, is “the threat of a loss of 40 per cent of tourism if Churchill’s polar bears ‘appear unhealthy’ (very skinny), which is already beginning to occur.” On the upside, there is a growing opportunity for “‘last chance tourism’, where additional tourists are drawn to see either changing landscapes or certain features (e.g. glaciers or certain wildlife species) before they decline or disappear.”

There’s a silver lining to everything.

Copyright Chris Wood 2014

Further reading:
Canada in a Changing Climate is available here: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/sites/www.nrcan.gc.ca/files/earthsciences/pdf/assess/2014/pdf/Full-Report_Eng.pdf
Natural Security, Chris Wood’s bimonthly Facts and Opinions column , is here. (Subscription)

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. If you’d like to support our journalism, for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1.) 

 

 

 

 

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You want fries with that mortarboard?

With convocation season wrapping up, journalist Penney Kome is prompted by her own son’s graduation to consider the severe deflation of university degrees in trying economic times. Convocation at the University of Alberta was a bittersweet occasion for at least one family,”  writes Kome in The Degree Bubble. “Yielding to parental pressure to attend the graduation ceremony, our son the graduate irreverently considered adding a bright duct tape debt message to his mortar board: $47K. That’s the accumulated debt from a basic part-time seven-year Bachelor of Arts, not the fees to earn a medical or law degree   read more

While on the topic of education, read or revisit poet Patrick Lane’s essay, Convocation Address, delivered last fall at the University of Victoria and republished here with permission. It begins: “It is sixty-five years ago, you’re ten years old and sitting on an old, half-blind, grey horse. All you have is a saddle blanket and a rope for reins as you watch a pack of dogs rage at the foot of a Ponderosa pine. High up on a branch a cougar lies supine, one paw lazily swatting at the air. He knows the dogs will tire. They will slink away and then the cougar will climb down and go on with its life in the Blue Bush country south of Kamloops.* It is a hot summer day. There is the smell of pine needles and Oregon grape and dust. It seems to you that the sun carves the dust from the face of the broken rocks, carves and lifts it into the air where it mixes with the sun. Just beyond you are three men on horses …. read more

 

(These stories are free of charge at the request of their authors. But if you’d consider supporting our journalism, for $2.95, the price of a cheap brew, you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1.) 

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. 

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Risky Business vs Smart Development

By CHRIS WOOD

If Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Australia’s Tony Abbott, the world’s most unabashed national cheerleaders for Big Carbon, were really the ‘frank,’ hard-nosed pair they pretend to be, two reports out in as many days would surely shake their certainty that acting to slow down and adapt to climate change will “destroy jobs and growth in their country,” as the first of the pair said earlier this month. 

English Bay, Vancouver, British Columbia. © Deborah Jones 2014

ENGLISH BAY, Vancouver. Canada is considering two new pipelines to increase exports of bitumen to Asia from Alberta’s oil sands, shipped through ports on British Columbia’s coast. Photo © Deborah Jones 2014

In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. Failure to tackle climate change seriously, a bipartisan, independent and business-oriented study group in the United States has found, is likely to cost that country hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses. According to the World Bank — hardly a nest of lefties — on the other hand, acting to contain climate damage could make the world trillions of dollars richer as soon as 2030. 

Risky Business, funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Treasury Secretary (under President George W. Bush) Henry Paulson and green-minded billionaire Tom Steyer, identifies some ‘wins’ for the economies of northern-tier American states, but staggering losses in its southern and coastal states. Sea-level rise alone puts more than US$700 billion in coastal property at risk, the report warns: “On our current climate path, some homes and commercial properties with 30-year mortgages in places in Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana and elsewhere could quite literally be underwater before the note is paid off.” Hurricanes and other coastal storms will cost the U.S.  an additional $35 billion a year by 2030. Key harvests, including corn, soybeans and cotton, are likely to fall by 10 to 20 percent within as little as five years; more certainly within the quarter-century. 

Although the study is limited to the United States, elsewhere in the world Canada and Australia both face similar threats of coastal inundations, and droughts and heat waves in key interior agricultural regions. Neither country’s government has comprehensively assessed their economy’s vulnerability to climate change (although Canada’s independent advisory National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy did in 2011, a year before being shuttered by the Harper government).

While climate change, according to Paulsen et al, will likely destroy more than a trillion dollars of property and livelihoods in the U.S. alone, just a day earlier the World Bank’s reported that tackling the problem has the potential to boost world gross economic product by $2.6 trillion by 2030. 

The Bank’s report, Climate-Smart Development: Adding Up the Benefits, finds that even if only the United States, China, Brazil, India, Mexico and the European Union institute new policies aimed at cutting emissions, world GDP would rise by 1.5 percent more than it will on its current track. “This report removes another false barrier, another false argument, not to take action against climate change,” said World Bank President Jim Kim. 

Are you listening, Mr. Prime Ministers?

Copyright Chris Wood 2014

Further reading and viewing:

Natural Security, Chris Wood’s bimonthly Facts and Opinions column , is here.
The report Risky Business is available at: http://riskybusiness.org/
Climate-Smart Development: Adding Up the Benefits is available at: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2014/06/20/000456286_20140620100846/Rendered/PDF/889080WP0v10Bo0elopment0Main0report.pdf
The Canadian NRTEE’s Paying the Price is available here: http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/webarchives2/20130322143115/http:/nrtee-trnee.ca/climate/climate-prosperity/the-economic-impacts-of-climate-change-for-canada/paying-the-price

Video of the press conference announcing Risky Business:

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Finding: United Kingdom Accents

Proper English gentlemen and ladies may not be amused, but we are. Siobhan Thompson of the BBC America’s Anglophenia blog pokes fun at Brit-speak. A diversion for the weekend: 

 

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