State of the Union On Demand

22 January 2015

The State of the Union as Netflix


In the week leading up to this year’s State of the Union, the question of whether the speech and its rituals still matter seemed to get almost as much air time as the policy proposals the Obama Administration was previewing all over the country. Is the SOTU dead? Did Obama kill it? And what does all of this say about the state of our politics?

Answers: No, no, and the American spirit of adaptation is alive and well. Rather than the end of the State of the Union, what we saw may just have been (with apologies to President Clinton’s 2000 speech, which I helped write) the first 21st-century SOTU.

A week ahead of time, POLITICO’s Edward-Isaac Dovere asked whether the President was killing the State of the Union and answered “sort of.” What this seemed to mean was killing the big reveal – inside Washington, this was the moment on the morning of the speech when the White House  press office released its themes and began briefing chosen insiders in the press and policy communities on the contents. Later in the day came , the release of excerpts, which were eagerly passed around, first hand-to-hand and later electronically, among those slated to write or comment on the speech.

Sounds a little like sharing a cigarette before there was vaping, doesn’t it?

Related: The power of American angst.

For most of the country, the big reveal was always the next morning, when the local newspaper or TV station told you what the President had said while you were watching sports or sitcoms.

Instead, what we got this year just may be the State of the Union equivalent of Joe Biden showing up in your inbox every day promising another chance to win lunch with Barack Obama. News media reported daily on Obama’s key themes for more than a week in advance. For those of us who geek out on policy areas deemed less central to the national narrative – cybersecurity, say, or trade – our specialty publications got previews that we could Tweet and blog about amongst ourselves. And we did.

This year’s speech had a number of additional made-for-Twitter qualities, from subtweeting (dissing someone without using his or her name) to posting the entire text of the speech on Medium ahead of time to the dropping in of words trending in online debates and culture (transgender).

Think of this year’s speech as a Netflix series – House of Cards: SOTU Edition.

For his part in POLITICO, Dovere suggested the SOTU was turning “from a moment into a movement.” But this misses the point. Increasingly we consume media on demand, not on the schedule of the producers. Think of this year’s speech as a Netflix series – House of Cards: SOTU Edition. You could read about the policy proposals, then watch the speech, then listen to the commentary, then read it yourself. Or you could binge-watch it all at once, following along from the pre-released full text, watching on TV and checking out the pundits on blogs or Twitter. Or you could go all meta and follow Twitter without watching the speech, as several commentators I follow kept bragging they were doing.

Related: Why the Young Turks can save the United States. 

Writing at Time, Maya Rhodan describes the SOTU as having slipped from the Super Bowl of American political media to the Golden Globes or American Idol. In other words, it’s a major television production with a declining viewership that nonetheless continues to drive conversation on social media. What she fails to note is how much influence those shows still wield in their respective industries, shaping marketing strategies and stars’ career trajectories. Biden and Boehner are the Fey and Poehler of our days. Ernst, McMorris-Rogers, Jindal et al? Those hapless early-round contestants who tried to sing something too big for their voices. Some day, maybe one of them will break out and make it big.

None of this, though, ultimately answers these questions: who watched, and how successful was the strategy in shaping the year’s political conversations? CNN’s quick-reaction polling had 72% of viewers say Obama was taking the country in the right direction – a number you could not match in many coffee shops or think tanks, and one most governors would envy.

Outside the U.S., the rest of the world listens for rhetoric and symbolism in our State of the Union. Global audiences also still read newspapers and more lengthy analyses – and so the coverage abroad looked much as it might have any other year. BBC highlighted Obama’s declaration that the economic crisis is over, striking a discordant note in Europe and the many other regions of the globe whose growth lags behind the United States. France’s Le Monde, still following multiple stories stemming from the recent terror attacks, didn’t fit the speech on its homepage. Israel’s Haaretz, with a 12-victim bus stabbing filling the news, posted video of Obama’s snappy election comeback (“I know because I won both of them”) rather than his rhetoric on Iran, ISIS, or anti-Semitism. Indian outlets noted with pride the presence of an Indian-American Ebola doctor as one of Michelle Obama’s guests, though American wonks critiqued the lack of a mention of the world’s largest democracy shortly before Obama travels there. Russia’s foreign minister described the speech as “a course for confrontation.” None found it worth mentioning that the economic rhetoric had been rolled out in the Midwest a week ago, or the Ebola initiative recycled from last year.

Here at home, dial-polling of independent voters and women organized by Democracy Corps found the two groups, so coveted for 2016, more enthusiastic about proposals that would explicitly benefit them, less so about those that wouldn’t.

Much to the chagrin of this and every speechwriter (and many listeners), the State of the Union is not about gorgeous, soaring rhetoric.

Which brings us to the key point. Much to the chagrin of this and every speechwriter (and many listeners), the State of the Union is not about gorgeous, soaring rhetoric. It’s not about surprising new policy proposals. It’s about three things: tradition and ritual; packaging a year’s themes and picking a year’s battles; and getting in the faces of media, opinion leaders and voters who have a hundred channels of choices to focus on.

Smaller chunks on more channels. Long-form on demand for those who want it. Diffusion of experiences to different platforms, capturing different eyeballs, facilitating arguments and, perhaps, new kinds of agreement. The morning after the State of the Union brought two quite surprising developments in American national security politics. GOP House Speaker John Boehner issued an unprecedented invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress just a month before that country’s hotly-contested election. Liberal Barbara Boxer and libertarian Rand Paul announced they’d join forces to oppose new sanctions on Iran that many of their Senate colleagues are proposing.

Put the State of the Union down in the category of American institutions that technology transforms but doesn’t destroy. And get used to it.

About the Author

Heather Hurlburt
Heather Hurlburt is the Director of New America's New Models of Policy Change initiative.

State of the Union: Dis-ConnectED?


The post-State of the Union punditry often focuses on what the President said — and what he plans to do. We hear a lot less about what he didn’t say, and hardly anything at all about what was promised in previous speeches that never came to pass.

In this year’s speech, we heard about the progress we’ve made in providing greater access to education and technology in the 21st century. “We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the internet – tools they needed to go as far as their effort will take them,” Obama declared. What he failed to mention, however, was the fate of his past proposals for how to equip students and teachers with the resources and skills needed to actually take advantage of those tools.

So, what kind of progress have we actually made since the president’s last annual address? The answer, it turns out, is decidedly mixed.

In addition to setting targets for high-speed broadband, ConnectED brought private partners on board to provide additional hardware and software into schools, and committed to support teachers in professional learning to better implement technology in the classroom.

In last year’s State of the Union, President Obama placed a heavy emphasis on technology and innovation, touting the importance of connecting schools and libraries to high-speed Internet. Among other things, he emphasized his promise to “connect 99 percent of our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years,” a reference to a 2013 White House initiative called ConnectED, which the Administration launched to help bring American students into the digital age. In addition to setting targets for high-speed broadband, ConnectED brought private partners on board to provide additional hardware and software into schools, and committed to support teachers in professional learning to better implement technology in the classroom. Taken together, these three components – increased connectivity, private partnerships, and technological professionalization – would “enrich K-12 education for every student in America.”

In the past year, the federal government has made tremendous strides toward fulfilling the first part of Obama’s ConnectED pledge: bringing high-speed Internet connectivity to every classroom and every library in the country. This has been achieved primarily through reforms to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program called E-rate, which subsidizes communications services for schools and libraries as part of the Universal Service Fund. The FCC successfully carried out two phases of E-rate reform in 2014: an initial order in July focused on improving Wi-Fi connectivity in schools and libraries, and a second order in December that tackles the underlying connectivity challenges and expands funding for the program.

Related: What will the future of education look like?

Today, the modernized E-rate program stands on strong footing. The program has been revamped to focus on high-speed Internet connectivity, phasing out support for outdated services and putting aside $5 billion over the next five years to help close the wireless connectivity gap in schools and libraries. And with an additional $1.5 billion available annually on a permanent basis (which significantly increases the program size from $2.4 to $3.9 billion) schools and libraries will have the ability to invest in long-term, scalable bandwidth solutions like fiber optic infrastructure. With better rules and more funding, these changes should substantially help schools and libraries to meet the connectivity challenges of today and tomorrow.

But what happened to the rest of President Obama’s initiative? Where is the “ED” in ConnectED today?

When it comes to the private partners, the answer is that no one really knows. In the 2014 State of the Union, President Obama stated that “with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit.” A few days later, he unveiled a new private sector initiative that promised to provide hardware, software, and technical expertise to schools across the country. Seven big tech companies pledged $750 million in “in-kind” donations, agreeing to contribute a variety of free or discounted hardware, software, and services to students and teachers across the country. We haven’t heard much since, although the White House’s ConnectED resource page now touts over $2 billion in commitments and has added a handful of new companies to the list. But this week’s speech offered no firm follow-up, and, as the Washington Post pointed out last year, while the private sector commitments are a good first step, they actually don’t add up to all that much when you consider the gaping needs of students across the country.

What good are technological tools without the dedicated funding to support teachers’ efforts to learn how to use them effectively?

And what about teacher professional development for technology? A few weeks after last year’s State of the Union, the President announced that a new ConnectEDucators Program, designed to deliver on the promise of 21st century teacher preparation, would be included in his fiscal 2015 Budget Proposal. When Congress failed to pass a budget in October, however, the program hit a dead end. To address the lack of funding for helping teachers integrate technology into their practice, the Department of Education issued guidance to states and districts instead. Through a Dear Colleague Letter in November 2014, the Department clarified how schools could use education funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to “support the use of technology to improve instruction and student outcomes.” But without Congressional action, no additional dollars will be allocated for this important dimension of the ConnectED Initiative. What good are technological tools without the dedicated funding to support teachers’ efforts to learn how to use them effectively?

Related: How to hack diversity in tech.

Investing in high-speed Internet infrastructure is a critical first step to enable 21st century learning, but it is hardly sufficient on its own. The next steps involve putting the right hardware and software in classrooms across the nation and providing teachers with the professional learning opportunities they need to integrate new technologies into their instructional practice. The President made a brief reference in this week’s State of the Union to extending the Internet’s reach “to every classroom,” but he said little about the other critical components that need to be put in place. We need to keep talking about the work that remains unfinished.

About the Author

Danielle Kehl
Danielle Kehl is a policy analyst in the Open Technology Institute at New America where she works on technology policy. Her main areas of focus are U.S. broadband policy and Internet freedom. Her writing has been published in a number of outlets, including the Journal of Information Policy, Slate, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Lindsey Tepe
Lindsey Tepe is a program associate in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. She conducts research in support of the Early Education Initiative and the Federal Education Budget Project. She previously conducted research on a number of programs and policies affecting the public work force, with a focus on new media implementation and utilization.

The World-Wide Muzzle and What to Do About it


After terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier this month, a group of European Union ministers executed a more covert attack on freedom of expression around the world. They issued a statement calling on Internet companies to be more proactive about monitoring, reporting, and removing “material that aims to incite hatred and terror.”  British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be on the same page, announcing last week that he wants to ban encrypted online messaging services.

The latest calls in Europe for increased censorship and surveillance are part of a broader problem: governments of all types use terror and crime (including everything from child exploitation to copyright violations) as an excuse to pressure Internet companies to monitor and control user behavior in ways that can lead to violations of Internet users’ rights.

We conclude that governments and companies need to rethink behaviors that are infringing upon the rights of Internet users.

We’ve described the extent of this problem in a new UNESCO report, Fostering Freedom Online: The Role of Internet Intermediaries, which takes a detailed look at how legal, regulatory, and commercial frameworks help or hinder Internet companies’ ability to respect users’ free expression online. Authors Rebecca MacKinnon, Elonnai Hickok, Allon Bar, and Hae-in Lim worked with an international team of researchers to examine 11 different companies operating across the world, highlighting power struggles that shape who controls the flow of information online and how content gets restricted. We conclude that governments and companies need to rethink behaviors that are infringing upon the rights of Internet users.

A lot of this thinking builds on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which says governments have the primary duty to protect human rights, including freedom of expression and the right to privacy (which itself is considered a prerequisite for freedom of expression). All companies, including those that operate Internet platforms and services, also have a responsibility to respect those rights. The report takes stock of how companies are doing in this regard, and how governments either help or hinder companies from upholding their human rights responsibilities.

More: Here are the real costs of NSA surveillance. 

We found two broad categories of problems:

1. Governments are making it hard for companies to respect users’ free expression rights. While some of the most egregious examples are found in China, Russia, and the other usual authoritarian suspects, the problem exists to varying degrees across the gamut of political systems and cultural contexts. Laws, government policies, and regulations – even those enacted by well-meaning public servants seeking to address genuine problems of crime, terror, and child protection – not only erode free expression rights online but also cause companies to carry out censorship and surveillance, affecting speech that should be protected and respected under human rights law.

A major culprit is law that holds companies legally responsible – liable – for what their users say and do. While countries like China have long blacklists of words and phrases that companies like the Chinese search engine Baidu must delete if they want to stay in business, censorship can still be heavy in some democracies. Facebook received more government requests to censor content in India than in any other country where it makes an effort to operate (Facebook is blocked in China).

2. Companies are not transparent enough about how they restrict content and collect or share user data. Despite the clear problems that governments cause, companies are not doing enough to minimize users’ freedom of expression from being unduly restricted when they comply with government demands or enforce their own terms of service. Companies also need to be more transparent about how these actions affect users’ ability to express themselves or access information – as well as clarify who has access to users’ personal information and under what circumstances.

A growing number of companies in North America and Europe have started to issue transparency reports with data about the number of government requests they receive and how many they comply with. But many companies report more extensively on user data requests than on censorship requests, and many do not report any information about requests for content restriction or how they comply.

Related: Why we need to rank digital rights online.

For example, Vodafone started to report last year about the law enforcement requests it receives for user data and bulk surveillance. But it is not transparent about content removals, including its role in a voluntary scheme in the UK to protect children from age-inappropriate content. In mid-2014 the non-profit Open Rights Group found that the system blocked adults from accessing content that included an article about postpartum depression and the blog of a Syrian commentator. Also, while companies like Twitter report extensively on content restrictions in response to legally binding external requests, they provide no information about content being removed to enforce their private “Twitter rules.”

Accountability mechanisms are key.

To be sure, we’re not arguing that people should be free to do anything they want online regardless of consequences. Rather, it’s critical that restriction of speech or interference in peoples’ privacy should be “necessary and proportionate,” based on clear legal authority to address a specific threat or crime, and should be as narrowly tailored as possible. Accountability mechanisms are key.

What, then, are the next steps for governments and companies? Here are a few of our recommendations for governments and companies moving forward:

  •  Laws and regulations affecting online speech must undergo due diligence to ensure they are compatible with international human rights norms.
  • Policies at the national, regional, and international level that affect online speech need to be developed jointly by representatives of all affected stakeholder groups (such as industry, civil society groups, and technical experts).
  • Transparency about censorship is just as important as transparency about surveillance. Transparency from governments and companies about how their censorship and content restriction processes work, in addition to public reporting about the amount and nature of content being restricted, is essential to prevent abuses and improve accountability.
  • Companies that “self-regulate” by using private terms of service to restrict content that the law does not forbid, or which comply with extra-legal blacklists generated by non-governmental groups, must be transparent with the public about what is being restricted, under what circumstances, by whose authority.
  • Governments and companies need to set up effective mechanisms for people to report abuses and grievances, as well as processes through which aggrieved parties can obtain redress.

Our current project, Ranking Digital Rights, plans to hold companies accountable. While organizations such as Freedom House and the World Wide Web Foundation annually rank governments on how well they protect Internet users’ rights, we are in the process of developing a parallel methodology to measure and compare companies’ respect for users’ rights around the world. The first public ranking is scheduled for launch in late 2015.

About the Author

Rebecca MacKinnonDirector, Ranking Digital Rights
Rebecca MacKinnon directs the Ranking Digital Rights project at the New America Foundation. Author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, she is co-founder of the citizen media network Global Voices Online and a former CNN bureau chief and correspondent in Beijing and Tokyo.
Priya Kumar
Priya Kumar is a Program Associate with New America’s Ranking Digital Rights project.

Being Unemployed Shouldn’t Make You Unemployable

New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

In the story of the American Dream, the moral is that with hard work, making a comeback or reinventing yourself is possible. Inherent in that moral is the viability of second chances. Real life for the long-term unemployed in America tells a different story, say Rachel Black and Aleta Sprague in this conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter (and in New America’s Big Ideas series on CNN). Black and Sprague report that for America to have a real second-chance economy, we must make policy changes that will remove barriers for dreamers of the American Dream to re-enter our economy.

Why Rebels Have Failed in Syria


Last year was disastrous for the original moderate, secular, democratic goals of the Syrian revolution.

As the Syrian civil war enters its fourth year, the revolution has shifted from a movement clamoring for social and political change to an all out sectarian conflict.   In the process, it has become a proxy war pitting global and regional powers, frustrating diplomatic efforts to solve it.

Part of the blame for the war’s current messiness lies with the group that originally carried the banner of revolution – and citizens’ hope for a better Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose coalition of moderate rebel brigades, has lost ground to both extremist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and more moderate Islamists. Increasingly, civilians are abandoning the FSA and embracing  jihadist organizations, while FSA fighters are leaving to fight with other groups.  The Free Syrian Army has found itself hamstrung by widespread corruption and an inability to provide basic public goods including humanitarian aid and law and order.

Villages like Harem are being lost to extremist groups…because the FSA has failed to maintain basic law and order and prevent corruption in the ranks.

On all fronts, the organization is losing ground. Only a major overhaul can possibly save this endangered species. But before Syrians initiate any kind of overhaul – we need an analysis of what, exactly, went wrong with the FSA’s strategy. In other words, how did we get here? After conducting interviews and research in Syria for the past two years, I found that there are three factors that have lead to the FSA’s loss of credibility, which has, arguably, helped lead the war into its brutal stasis.

First, corruption – a problem widespread in FSA ranks. Syrians tell stories of how leaders and soldiers have stolen in the name of the FSA. But without a clear leadership within the group, no one is able to stop such theft.

What’s more, there is no system of punishment or enforcement for a soldier’s conduct. For example, if a soldier stops a civilian at a checkpoint and asks him to give money in order to pass the checkpoint, there is no court the civilian can go to punish the soldiers and return his or her money. In one village called Harem, near the Turkish border, some checkpoints stop gas transport cars and force them to pay impromptu “tolls” before crossing – supposedly intended to enhance the security of the liberated areas.  At one point, each car was being forced to pay 5,000 Syrian pounds or almost $ 100.  As a result, civilians have begun avoiding such roads. Villages like Harem are being lost to extremist groups – not because civilians believe in Islamic radicalism, but because the FSA has failed to maintain basic law and order and prevent corruption in the ranks. As a result, civilians have asked groups like al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, to intervene in the area to protect their interests.

Second –  many people say the FSA has distributed  humanitarian aid unfairly.  Accusations abound that the FSA commonly steals the products of the aid to sell to Turkey. When al-Nusra took over the Syrian Revolutionary Front leader Jamal Marouf’s military bases, they filmed hundreds of undistributed humanitarian aid boxes that were packed in his “storehouse.” Even if the report was falsified or exaggerated for Al Nusra’s propaganda purposes, the video had a major impact on public support because the area hosts a large number of refugees in dire need of humanitarian aid.

Third, the FSA has been unable to provide security. In some places, kidnappings, thefts, looting and robbery became so rampant that ordinary Syrians became increasingly willing to trade their freedom for temporary security, which extremist groups like al-Nusra could better guarantee. Indeed, in areas where the FSA has lost control to Al-Nusra, civilians claim that there have been major drops in crime.

More: We asked 6 experts “How can we defeat the Islamic State?”

This lack of security is also connected to a general failure in military operations.

For example, the FSA had been trying to liberate “Wadi Deif,” a strategic regime position just outside of Maaret al-Nouman in the Idlib region.  Wadi Deif has been under siege since October 11, 2012. And every time the rebels lost a battle, the civilians paid the price; the regime would respond to each FSA attack by bombarding civilian areas nearby.

On the 10th of December 2014, members of Al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa liberated the area in 17 hours, using tanks and weapons they captured from their latest clashes with Jamal Maarouf’s Syrian Revolutionary Front. Units of the Free Syrian Army also took part in the fighting, but Al-Nusra omitted the role of FSA in their media releases.  In protest, FSA-affiliated activists claimed that Wadi Deif was liberated because the FSA had been attacking it over the past two years, and Al-Nusra entered at the last moment, taking all the credit for its liberation. Once again, FSA lost the propaganda war.

Another military failure: the American attack on Idlib.

Many civilians were reported killed and injured after the American air raids, prompting both anger toward the Americans and towards the groups that are funded by the Americans (like the FSA), as they are increasingly considered “part of the problem.”

The Syrian people took America’s shelling of the al-Nusra and ISIS bases in Idlib as an indicator that it was at war against Islam, one former fighter told me. Citizens thought “if the Americans are serious in helping the Syrian people, they should have shelled the government bases, not the rebels and civilians.” Many civilians were reported killed and injured after the American air raids, prompting both anger toward the Americans and towards the groups that are funded by the Americans (like the FSA), as they are increasingly considered “part of the problem.”

Nowhere are the results of these faults and failures more pronounced than Idlib, which used to be a major stronghold of FSA support but is now turning towards al-Nusra.

Al-Nusra has learned how to use mistakes made by the FSA to strengthen their position, building a successful propaganda campaign on the back of FSA’s corruption and incompetence. Al-Nusra does not hide its intention to build an Islamic state in Idlib. However, ordinary Syrians are increasingly willing to set aside ideological differences for the sake of security and stability. As many have told me, an Islamic court run by Al-Nusra is better than no system of justice at all.

The only solution now is to reorganize the leadership of the FSA, looking specifically for men who can win public support, build alliances, and respect the rights of their own people. But still, that is only half of a solution. As long as there is no serious international military intervention to protect and support the rebels, there will be no significant victories for the FSA.

About the Author

Loubna Mrie
Loubna Mrie is a Syrian freelance journalist and an International Security Program Fellow at New America.

On Pragmatism and Climate Change

Kirsten Holtz/New America

Sometimes it seems like climate change discussions are stuck in the ’90s. We’re still having many of the same debates: Is it real? Are our children doomed to a Mad Max-esque future? Where is Captain Planet when you need him?

It’s time to switch up the dialogue. That was the message of a Future Tense event held recently at New America. At “How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?” speakers focused on the ways that the top-down approach to “solving” climate change can exacerbate existing inequalities and overlook or stifle innovation. They also explored the surprising side effects of climate change on the military, business, and international relations.

The word of the day may have been governance, particularly in the context of promoting and permitting ideas that can build community resilience and increase access to food and energy—which are vital to both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.

The word of the day may have been governance, particularly in the context of promoting and permitting ideas that can build community resilience and increase access to food and energy—which are vital to both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.

University of Michigan research scientist and Nigerian Utibe Effiong blamed poor governance for his home country’s struggles with climate change—and inability to effectively address it. For example, Nigeria is one of the biggest oil producers in the world, but doesn’t have a refinery, which leads to high energy costs and inconsistent energy supplies.

Related: Here is how the military can help to fight climate change. 

One problem is that governments worldwide tend to silo problems, instead of thinking holistically. Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank, discussed governments’ habit of separating issues that ought to be connected: “What we’ve come up with is we have special poverty initiatives and we have green initiatives.” In the United States, she said, green subsidies—for instance, for electric cars—“are particularly going toward the wealthy.” This is especially true in California, as Margonelli discussed this in a Slate piece in September. She proposes that we “solve for poverty and for climate issues at the same time.”

That’s a challenge, especially when much of the discussion around conquering climate change focuses on keeping developing countries from accessing energy and reaching new levels of prosperity.

“If you look at sustainability and climate change discourse, what counts as sustainability in poor countries amounts to a shadow of the kind of economic and standard of living aspirations of the world,” noted Dan Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.

Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development agreed and said that “until you can run an iron or smelter on a solar panel,” you can’t expect people to live carbon-free lives.

Several speakers were excited about the potential of local level innovation although, as Sarewitz noted, international governance tends to be skeptical about “context-created solutions.” That’s a shame, because as Nikki Silvestri, a food systems and climate solutions advocate, pointed out, community-based initiatives—like using bodegas as hubs for providing information after a natural disaster—can serve as case studies that can be duplicated on a wider scale. Yet at times, such initiatives end up mired in bureaucratic red tape. “There’s something to be said for just do it,” she told the audience. “And then once you see what policies and regulations you bump against, that opens a real-time, nontheoretical conversation about what policies you need in place to allow innovation to flourish.”

Context is critical, as climate change effects aren’t uniform—a mistake that many make, said Rimjhim Aggarwal, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State. “The local impacts are very different in different places,” she said, so decision-makers in, say, her native India need to listen to farmers with valuable local knowledge. By doing so, they not only improve their plans, but they “empower that poor person, because now he is being valued.”

That strategy—empowering the poor and valuing their knowledge—isn’t a common one; much of the time, officials speak down to poor people and people of color about climate change, Aggarwal and Silvestri said.

That strategy—empowering the poor and valuing their knowledge—isn’t a common one; much of the time, officials speak down to poor people and people of color about climate change, Aggarwal and Silvestri said. Silvestri noted that a study conducted by Green for All, where she served as executive director until recently, indicated that 70 percent of minority voters would favor a candidate who planned to tackle climate change.

In addition to discussing the social-equality questions that climate change asks us to ponder, the event’s speakers examined some of the unexpected business and military side effects of a warming planet. Rear Adm. Jonathan White spoke about how the U.S. Navy is facing three major climate change–related challenges: a melting Arctic, which opens up new waterways; rising sea levels by naval bases; and more natural disasters which may require Navy recovery efforts. White acknowledged that it may be surprising for some people to hear members of the military talk seriously about climate change, but the Navy, more so than most organizations, is a firsthand witness to the new Arctic. He noted that Navy submarines have been visiting the Arctic for 40 years, and the changes are undeniable. They’re working with partner nations to share information and to plan for a new planet.

The moral of the day is that while climate change presents a challenge for the world, there are opportunities as well: to empower communities and developing nations, to strengthen global ties, and even to make some money, as McKenzie Funk, author of Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, pointed out. In reporting his book, Funk found that Israelis have found potential profits in desalination and snowmaking; Greenland is hoping that new discoveries of new mineral reserves, made possible by retreating glaciers, could allow it to afford independence; and insurance companies have started paying for-profit firefighters to protect assets from wildfires.

Related: The United States and China just took a huge step in fighting climate change.

Whatever happens with climate change, “There is no going back to past states,” Brad Allenby, President’s Professor of sustainable engineering at Arizona State, told the audience. “We live on a terraformed planet. The planet has become a design space. The human is becoming a design space.” So the question is, how will we design our future as the world warms? Unfortunately, no one has an easy answer to that—not even Captain Planet.

This article originally appeared in Future Tense, which is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

About the Author

Torie Bosch
As the editor of Future Tense, a joint collaboration between the New America Foundation, the online magazine Slate, and Arizona State University, Torie Bosch covers emerging technology and its impact on society. Prior to joining New America, she was an associate editor at Slate, where she edited the medical and religion departments and coordinated social media outreach.

Examining the Crisis in Syria


Almost four years after what began as a demonstration against President Bashir al Assad in Daraa in March 2011, Syria is still in crisis. Victimized by Assad’s violent oppression of his people and the influx of jihadi groups, nearly 7 million Syrians have been displaced, 1 million have been injured, and an estimated 200,000 have lost their lives. Ambassador Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, puts it simply: “the situation on the ground is evolving in a bad way.”

 Though these facts tend to bleed into the background, they’re worth repeating: this conflict is one of the worst displacement crises in history.

Ford spoke these words at a recent conference, Examining the Crisis in Syria, co-hosted by Arizona State University’s Center for the Future of War, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and New America. The conference brought together international law experts, humanitarian activists, journalists, and government officials to offer multiple perspectives on the lived realities and policy solutions for events in Syria. Overall, the conference participants painted  a grim picture with their outlook on the situation in Syria, focusing on how the media’s disparity in reporting about the conflict impacts efforts to hold war criminals accountable for violent acts and potential ways for the Syrian people to end  their suffering.

Though these facts tend to bleed into the background, they’re worth repeating: this conflict is one of the worst displacement crises in history.  Half of the 7 million internally displaced people are children, and an estimated $8.4 billion in humanitarian aid is needed to provide food, shelter, rent, cash assistance, and education to the 4 million refugees in neighboring countries. All attempts made so far at reconciliation and negotiation have failed.

More: Can women unlock Syria’s stalemate?

The conference began by addressing the issue of war crimes charges with a panel debating the legality of actions in Syria under international humanitarian law. Under the Geneva Convention and Rome Statute, these laws seek to regulate armed conflicts. One of those accountability efforts, the Syrian Accountability Project, is spearheaded by Syracuse University College of Law professor David Crane. Crane and his team of law students at Syracuse University are scouring news reports, activists’ accounts, and NGO reports attempting to identify every violation of IHL in the hopes that prosecutions will occur in the future. Another effort by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group seeks to identify the names of those killed. Clear documentation, Crane acknowledged, such as accurate reporting of who died, how they died, and who killed them can be difficult to come by. Journalists are actively blocked from entering the country and local reporters often disappear. This ban against journalists is just one of the many reasons why media coverage of the day-to-day activities within Syria can be hard to come by.

Washington Post reporter and Associate Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran and New York Times reporter Peter Baker, among others, weighed in on why U.S. media coverage of Syria and the humanitarian plight there is not nearly equal to the coverage received by other conflicts, or even other global incidents, like Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Paris shootings. For Baker and Chandrasekaran it boils down to two basic truths. First, according to Baker, “Americans’ interest [in particular global incidents] is directly proportionate to the American presence there.” So, for example, if there are no American troops fighting in that war, Americans won’t care very much about the war itself, or Americans, who often travel to Paris or have European roots, care about Paris. Second – and more unfortunate, according to Chandrasekaran –  is that “the first killings are shocking, but then four years in, [the killings of civilians] isn’t shocking anymore.”

Second – and more unfortunate, according to Chandrasekaran –  is that “the first killings are shocking, but then four years in, [the killings of civilians] isn’t shocking anymore.”

What started out as a bloody crackdown against protesters has slowly morphed into a regional conflict where cities, hospitals, and civilians waiting in line for food are intentionally targeted. Refugees have flooded into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt costing each of those countries billions of dollars. In Lebanon alone, a country of only 4 million, there are over 1 million refugees costing the government $7.5 billion.  RAND research has also found that insurgencies such as this one typically last 10 years. With this humanitarian crisis churning on such an epic scale, the region will not be able to take much more.

More: We asked 6 experts “How can we defeat the Islamic State?”

Is there a way for the world to end this catastrophe?  International law expert Toby Cadman, who submitted a report to the International Criminal Court on Jan. 15, summed up this crisis aptly in his speech at the conference: “Atrocities [have been committed in Syria] on a scale not seen since the Holocaust.” Panelists stressed that a Syrian-led process of negotiations, with Assad, the Syrian opposition, Iran, and Russia at the table, is going to be the only way in which an effective peace agreement will stick. Only extensive international support for refugees and those still caught in the conflict on the ground will bring an end to this crisis.

About the Author

Courtney Schuster
Courtney is an intern with the International Security Program and assists in editing the South Asia Channel for Foreign Policy Magazine. She is also a research assistant at the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University and licensed attorney.

Why Free Community College Won’t Equalize Higher Ed


At first listen, it sounds like a great idea in service of a worthy goal: free community college for all Americans to expand higher education access. It is a worthy goal, and there’s no doubt that President Obama’s recently announced proposal to subsidize tuition at community colleges would pry open the doors of higher education to lower-income students.

And yet – this solution treats the symptoms – rather than the root cause – of the issue at hand.  The basic problem with this proposal is that community college subsidies and an earlier-proposed federal ratings system will not challenge the structural inequalities in higher education. Though many more lower-income students would be able to afford an education, the Obama administration’s community college proposal would also reinforce our already two-tiered and unequal system.

Here’s why.

First, money isn’t enough to ensure the success of low-income and first-generation students. A shortage of financial resources is an important part—but just one dimension—of the multifaceted challenges that often make it more difficult for lower-income and first-generation students to navigate college life. In addition to financial impediments, these students lack the parental support, social networks, and human capital of wealthier students with college-educated parents.

In effect, there are two vastly different systems of education: one for richer students from college-educated parents and another for poorer students from uneducated families.

In effect, there are two vastly different systems of education: one for richer students from college-educated parents and another for poorer students from uneducated families. Richer students overwhelmingly attend the nation’s selective colleges and universities, where administrations have their pick of applicants. Poorer, first-generation students overwhelmingly attend community colleges. Even some poorer who are academically qualified for more competitive institutions choose community colleges—a phenomenon called “under-matching.”  The administration’s proposals will not end these inequities and do not aspire to end them. The community college proposal is a concession to the inevitability of a two-tiered, separate and unequal, system and will reinforce the status quo, including under-matching.

Second, as much as the Obama administration hopes to make them a panacea, many community colleges are ill-equipped to provide the academic and social supports necessary for the success of the capable but needy students drawn to them. Graduation rates at community colleges are meager. And, although many students enter community college with plans to transfer to four-year institutions, only one in five actually do. Reams of data document the struggles faced by community college faculty who strive to deliver quality education. The teaching staffs at these colleges typically are adjunct, part-time faculty members who juggle heavy course loads and are responsible for hundreds of students, many of whom need remedial instruction in basic skills.

Given the limitations of two-year colleges and the risks of under-matching, why not invest efforts to increase college access for Pell Grant-eligible, first-generation students in selective, four-year institutions that specialize in a student-centered educational experience? “Selective” need not mean “Ivy League” or “most expensive”; it includes the most competitive private colleges, state-supported universities, and lesser-known liberal arts colleges. These colleges award generous financial aid packages and provide institutional resources for students in need, ranging from dedicated academic support personnel to enrichment classes and social clubs to facilitate students’ academic progress and social networks. These are the colleges that result in the greatest return on investment and can change the life trajectories of the students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Finally, the third challenge in the administration’s proposals pertains to its rating system. Ratings, alone, are unlikely substantially to increase college access for Pell-Grant eligible, first-generation students. Identifying the colleges that are worst at providing access is an important initial step, one that I have advocated. The proposed ratings will help diagnose the nature of the access problem for economically and educationally disadvantaged students. However, different incentives are necessary to spur corrective action.

The government could mandate, then, that colleges receiving Higher Education Act funds admit and fund a minimum percentage of low-income, first-generation students or risk losing federal financing.

The federal government can incentivize access for lower-income students at selective institutions in one of two ways. One incentive system would work by imposing a penalty for noncompliance. Just as the nation mandated race- and sex-based integration of colleges and universities, Congress and the Department of Education can compel the economic integration of America’s college campuses. Statutory mandates like Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 not only have been used to integrate colleges and secondary schools, but also to increase the number of girls and women who participate in competitive sports programs, and, most recently, to require new substantive legal standards on campus sexual harassment and sexual assault. The government could mandate, then, that colleges receiving Higher Education Act funds admit and fund a minimum percentage of low-income, first-generation students or risk losing federal financing. A different kind of incentive program could work by rewarding institutions for increasing access for disadvantaged students. The federal government could create a system of competitive grants (a Race to the Top for higher education) premised on the award of additional federal dollars to colleges that enroll and provide effective support programs to a minimum percentage of Pell Grant-eligible and first-generation students.

To be clear, there certainly is a role for a strong community college system in the educational marketplace. For some students, two-year colleges are an appropriate choice. And the federal government should strengthen these institutions by increasing funding to them across the board. But it can reform the community college system without also enacting policies that funnel able, poorer students into two-year rather than four-year colleges. In other words, the federal government could increase allocations to community colleges and also promote greater access for lower-income students. It need not tether the latter policy objective to the former.

Whatever else it does, the government should promote true equality of opportunity in higher education. It should neither prop up our two-tier system, nor view the problem of unequal access to college as primarily a money problem. A mandate or reward system should be implemented to encourage federally-assisted colleges—especially cash-starved, selective, four-year public universities—to educate greater numbers of qualified, disadvantaged students. Federal policy should not reinforce class stratification in higher education.

About the Author

Tomiko Brown-Nagin
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and a Professor of History at Harvard University, where she is the co-director of the Program in Law and History. Her 2011 book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford), won the Bancroft Prize in U.S. History. She is currently at work on two books: an argument for greater access to selective higher education for first-generation and economically disadvantaged college students, and a biography of the Honorable Constance Baker Motley.