Texas GOP accused of 'coordinated effort to force state-sponsored religion into our public schools'

The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature has passed a bill to allow public schools to replace professional counselors with uncertified religious chaplains.

GOP lawmakers in the state House approved Senate Bill 763 on Wednesday, one day after their counterparts in the state Senate passed the legislation. The measure, which permits school districts "to employ or accept as volunteers chaplains to provide support, services, and programs for students," now heads to the desk of far-right Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it into law.

In addition to undermining religious freedom, the legislation also advances the American Legislative Exchange Council's longstanding goal of weakening occupational licensing requirements, thus threatening both the secular foundations and quality of public education in the Lone Star State. The right-wing Christian lawmakers backing S.B. 763 and related bills have called the separation of church and state a "false doctrine."

Senate Bill 1515, which would have required teachers to display an edited version of the Ten Commandments in every classroom in Texas, was approved by Senate Republicans last month, but the proposal died in the House because the chamber didn't vote on it before midnight Tuesday.

"The purpose of these bills is clear: The same lawmakers trying to control what students think by banning books and censoring curricula now want to dictate what students worship."

S.B. 1515 "was an unconstitutional attack on our core liberties that threatened the freedom of and from religion we hold dear as Texans. It should never have gotten this close to passage," ACLU of Texas attorney David Donatti said in a statement. "Whether trying to place the Ten Commandments in every classroom or replacing school counselors with unlicensed chaplains, certain Texas lawmakers have launched a coordinated effort to force state-sponsored religion into our public schools."

"We cannot overlook their attempts to push legislation that would sanction religious discrimination and bullying," said Donatti. "The First Amendment guarantees families and faith communities—not politicians or the government—the right to instill religious beliefs in their children."

S.B. 763 and S.B. 1515 "came in a session of aggressive legislative measures in Texas and several other states aiming to weaken decades of distinction between religion and government," The Washington Post observed. "Supporters say they believe the [U.S.] Supreme Court's ruling last summer in Kennedy v. Bremerton, in favor of a high school football coach who prayed with players, essentially removed any guardrails between them."

Texas Senate Republicans "also passed a bill to allow districts to require schools to set aside time for staff and students to pray and read religious texts, and a second bill to allow public employees to 'engage in religious prayer and speech'—modeled after the coach ruling," the newspaper reported. "Those two bills failed to make it out of House committees Wednesday and were not considered likely to resurface this session."

Carisa Lopez, senior political director for the progressive Texas Freedom Network, denounced GOP lawmakers for approving S.B. 763.

"This bill violates the religious freedom of all faiths and Texans of non-faith by placing chaplains in our schools who are not required to be certified educators or omit their personal religious beliefs when working with students," Lopez said in a statement. "Chaplains, unlike counselors, are not given the professional training required to care for the mental health of all students, and we cannot be reasonably certain that every chaplain hired or allowed to volunteer would give unbiased and adequate support to an LGBTQIA+ student, someone grappling with reproductive health decisions, or a student who may struggle with suicidal ideation or self-harm."

"I find it egregious—especially on the one-year anniversary of the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde—that lawmakers would pass a bill allowing chaplains to be compensated with funding meant to address school safety," said Lopez.

"Yet again, our elected officials have squandered their opportunity to pass meaningful legislation that would keep kids safe, like commonsense gun reform or bills addressing the school counselor and teacher shortage," she added. "We will never stop fighting the religious right's agenda to inject their personal beliefs into our schools, and we urge Texans to hold these lawmakers accountable at the ballot box."

Rev. Erin Walter, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Texas, also condemned the state's GOP lawmakers for pushing theocratic legislation that violates the U.S. Constitution and, in the case of S.B. 763, could harm the well-being of students by leaving them in the care of unqualified chaplains rather than licensed counselors who have completed the requisite training.

"As a religious leader, I'm disgusted by this assault on religious freedom and the right of all religious communities to conduct their own religious education," said Walter. "As a mother, I'm angry that these politicians believe they know how to raise Texas children better than their own parents do."

"As a former public school teacher, I'm appalled by this erosion of public education as a means of preparing young people to thrive in our diverse state," Walter continued. "And as a fourth-generation Texan, I refuse to accept this government intrusion into our private lives."

Earlier this month, Rep. Cole Hefner (R-5), the House sponsor of S.B. 763, insisted during a floor debate that the legislation doesn't seek to promote religion.

"We have to give schools all the tools; with all we're experiencing, with mental health problems, other crises, this is just another tool," said Hefner.

But as The Texas Tribune reported, "opponents fear the bill is a 'Trojan horse' for evangelizing kids and will worsen the state's mental health crisis through disproven counseling approaches."

"Our elected officials have squandered their opportunity to pass meaningful legislation that would keep kids safe, like commonsense gun reform or bills addressing the school counselor and teacher shortage."

Critics of S.B. 763, including some religious groups and Christian Democrats, worry it could allow "religious activists to recruit in schools and would exacerbate tensions at local school boards, which would have the final say on whether to allow chaplains in schools," the Tribune noted. "Worse, opponents say, the bill could deepen the state's youth mental health crisis by providing students with unproven, lightly supervised, and nonscientific counseling that treats common childhood problems, such as anxiety, as 'sins' or issues that can merely be prayed away."

According to the newspaper, "The head of the National School Chaplain Association—a key supporter of the chaplains bill—has led another group for decades that touted its ability to use school chaplains for evangelizing to kids."

During debate on the House floor, "a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers rose to ask Hefner to amend the bill, saying it didn't provide protection for a diversity of religions, among other things," the Post reported. "Hefner and the majority rejected almost all amendments, including one requiring parental consent and another requiring chaplains to serve students of all faiths and not proselytize."

"Groups that watch church-state issues say efforts nationwide to fund and empower religion—and, more specifically, a particular type of Christianity—are more plentiful and forceful than they have been in years," the newspaper noted. "Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it is watching 1,600 bills around the country in states such as Louisiana and Missouri. Earlier this year, Idaho and Kentucky signed into law measures that could allow teachers and public school employees to pray in front of and with students while on duty." However, the group "said it knows of no other bills that replace guidance counselors with chaplains."

In a blog post published earlier this week by the ACLU of Texas, Walter argued that "the purpose of these bills is clear: The same lawmakers trying to control what students think by banning books and censoring curricula now want to dictate what students worship."

Deforestation in Brazilian Amazon fell 68% in April compared with last year

Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest decreased by 68% this April compared with last year, according to preliminary government data published Friday.

The finding reflects positively on the administration of leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has vowed to make the destruction of the crucial ecosystem "a thing of the past."

As Reutersreported:

Official data from space research agency INPE showed that 328.71 square km (126.92 square miles) were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon last month, below the historical average of 455.75 square km for the month.

That interrupted two consecutive months of higher deforestation, with land clearing so far this year now down 40.4% to 1,173 square km.

Lula's victory last October over Brazil's far-right former president, Jair Bolsonaro, was hailed as a critical step toward rescuing the Amazon from more severe and possibly irreversible damage.

Parts of the Amazon, often referred to as the "lungs of the Earth" due to its unparalleled capacity to provide oxygen and absorb planet-heating carbon dioxide, recently passed a key tipping point after Bolsonaro intensified clearcutting of the tropical rainforest during his four-year reign. Bolsonaro's regressive policy changes pushed deforestation in Brazil to a 15-year high last year, helping to drive the country's greenhouse gas emissions to their highest level in almost two decades.

Most of the deforestation that occurred under Bolsonaro was illegal, fueled by logging, mining, and agribusiness companies that were given a green light by the ex-president and often used violence to repress Indigenous forest dwellers and other environmental defenders.

During a November speech at the United Nations COP27 climate summit in Egypt—his first on the international stage after defeating Bolsonaro—Lula said that "there's no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon," roughly 60% of which is located in Brazil.

"The crimes that happened [under Bolsonaro] will now be combated," said Lula, a Workers' Party member who previously served as Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010 and took office again on January 1. "We will rebuild our enforcement capabilities and monitoring systems that were dismantled during the past four years."

"We will fight hard against illegal deforestation. We will take care of Indigenous people," said Lula, who drastically reduced both deforestation and inequality when he governed the country earlier this century. "Brazil is emerging from the cocoon to which it has been subjected for the last four years."

As Reuters noted Friday, "Experts say it is still too early to confirm a downward trend, as the annual peak in deforestation from July to September lies ahead, but see it as a positive signal after rainforest destruction rocketed in late 2022."

"There are several factors, and the change in government might indeed be one of them," Daniel Silva, a conservation specialist at WWF-Brasil, told the outlet. "The environmental agenda has been resumed, but we know time is necessary for the results to be reaped."

"The environmental agenda has been resumed, but we know time is necessary for the results to be reaped."

Friends of the Earth campaigner and author Guy Shrubsole was quicker to give Lula credit.

"Still a lot more to do but this is the impact of electing an environmentalist like Lula over a right-wing populist like Bolsonaro," tweeted Shrubsole, whose books include The Lost Rainforests of Britain and Who Owns England?

Lula has taken important steps toward fulfilling his pledge to halt deforestation by 2030, though Reuters reported that the president "has faced continued challenges since taking office as [the] environmental agency IBAMA grapples with lack of staff," one lingering consequence of his predecessor's funding cuts.

Earlier this month, Lula secured "an 80 million-pound ($100.97 million) contribution from Britain to the Amazon Fund, an initiative aimed at fighting deforestation also backed by Norway, Germany, and the United States," Reuters noted. Last month, he "resumed the recognition of Indigenous lands, reversing a Bolsonaro policy, while announcing new job openings at the environment ministry and [the] Indigenous agency FUNAI."

Research has shown that granting land tenure to Indigenous communities is associated with improved forest outcomes.

Lula fully expected to face substantial opposition from corporate interests and right-wing Brazilian legislators.

The Washington Postreported last year that "a bloc of lawmakers with ties to agriculture could try to block Lula's environmental policies and pass legislation to facilitate land-grabbing and illegal mining."

Vox also explained that "deforestation is unlikely to stop altogether once Lula takes office."

"Bolsonaro's party still dominates Congress and will likely continue supporting the cattle industry, which is behind nearly all forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon," the outlet pointed out. "The country also faces an economic crisis and fallout from mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic, and it's not clear exactly how Lula will prioritize these competing crises."

Despite scientists' warnings that it will be virtually impossible to avert the worst consequences of the climate and biodiversity crises unless the world stops felling trees to make space for cattle ranching, monocropping, and other harmful practices, global efforts to reverse deforestation by 2030 are currently behind schedule and woefully underfunded.

EPA report on neonics proves U.S. has 'five-alarm fire' on its hands, green groups say

A newly published assessment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that three of the most commonly used neonicotinoid insecticides threaten the continued existence of more than 200 endangered plant and animal species.

"The EPA's analysis shows we've got a five-alarm fire on our hands, and there's now no question that neonicotinoids play an outsized role in our heartbreaking extinction crisis," Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said Friday in a statement.

"The EPA has to use the authority it has to take fast action to ban these pesticides," said Burd, "so future generations don't live in a world without bees and butterflies and the plants that depend on them."

The agency's new analysis found that clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam likely jeopardize the continued existence of 166, 199, and 204 plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), respectively. This includes 25 distinct insects, more than 160 plants reliant on insect pollination, and dozens of fish, birds, and invertebrates.

"The Biden administration will have the stain of extinction on its hands if it doesn't muster the courage to stand up to Big Ag and ban these chemicals."

Species being put at risk of extinction include the whooping crane, Indiana bat, Plymouth redbelly turtle, yellow larkspur, Attwater's greater prairie-chicken, rusty patched bumblebee, Karner blue butterfly, American burying beetle, Western prairie fringed orchid, vernal pool fairy shrimp, and the spring pygmy sunfish.

"The EPA confirmed what we have been warning about for years—these neonicotinoid insecticides pose an existential threat to many endangered species and seriously undermine biodiversity," Sylvia Wu, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said in a statement. "Unfortunately, this dire news is what we have told EPA all along. EPA should be ashamed that it still has yet to ban these life-threatening pesticides."

The EPA is well aware of the risks associated with the three neonicotinoids in question. One year ago, the agency released biological evaluations showing that the vast majority of endangered species are likely harmed by clothianidin (1,225 species, or 67% of the ESA list), imidacloprid (1,445, 79%), and thiamethoxam (1,396, 77%). Its new analysis focuses on which imperiled species and critical habitats are likely to be driven extinct by the trio of insecticides.

As CBD pointed out: "For decades the EPA has refused to comply with its Endangered Species Act obligations to assess pesticides' harms to protected species. The agency was finally forced to do the biological evaluations by legal agreements with the Center for Food Safety and the Natural Resources Defense Council. After losing many lawsuits on this matter, the EPA has committed to work toward complying with the act."

"Given the Fish and Wildlife Service's refusal to lift a finger to protect endangered species from pesticides, we commend the EPA for completing this analysis and revealing the disturbing reality of the massive threat these pesticides pose," said Burd. "The Biden administration will have the stain of extinction on its hands if it doesn't muster the courage to stand up to Big Ag and ban these chemicals."

CFS science director Bill Freese said that "while we welcome EPA's overdue action on this issue, we are closely examining the agency's analysis to determine whether still more species are jeopardized by these incredibly potent and ubiquitous insecticides."

As CFS explained:

Chemically similar to nicotine, neonicotinoids kill insects by disrupting their nervous systems. Just billionths of a gram can kill or impair honeybees. Introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids have rapidly become the most widely used insecticides in the world. Neonics can be sprayed or applied to soil, but by far the biggest use is application to seeds. The neonic seed coating is absorbed by the growing seedling and makes the entire plant toxic. CFS has a separate case challenging EPA's regulation of these seed coatings.

Bees and other pollinators are harmed by exposure to neonic-contaminated nectar and pollen, with studies demonstrating disruptions in flight ability, impaired growth and reproduction as well as weakened immunity. Neonic-contaminated seed dust generated during planting operations causes huge bee kills, while pollinators also die from direct exposure to spray.

Neonics are also persistent (break down slowly), and run off into waterways, threatening aquatic organisms. EPA has determined that neonics likely harm all 38 threatened and endangered amphibian species in the U.S., among hundreds of other organisms. Birds are also at risk, and can die from eating just one to several treated seeds.

Neonicotinoids have long been prohibited in the European Union, but as recently as a few months ago, a loophole enabled governments to grant emergency derogations temporarily permitting the use of seeds coated with these and other banned insecticides. In January, the E.U.'s highest court closed the loophole for neonicotinoid-treated seeds—a decision the post-Brexit United Kingdom refused to emulate.

In the U.S., neonicotinoids continue to be used on hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural land, contributing to an estimated 89% decline in the American bumblebee population over the past 20 years.

According to Freese, "EPA has thus far given a free pass to neonicotinoids coated on corn and other crop seeds—which represent by far their largest use—that make seedlings toxic to pollinators and other beneficial insects."

"Our expert wildlife agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service—have the final say on this matter," Freese added, "and may well find that neonicotinoids put even more species at risk of extinction."

A 2019 scientific review of the catastrophic global decline of insects made clear that a "serious reduction in pesticide usage" is essential to prevent the extinction of up to 41% of the world's insects in the coming decades.

House Dems unveil Hail Mary plan to defuse GOP's debt ceiling 'ticking time bomb'

House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled their closely held plan to force a vote on a debt ceiling hike "without extreme conditions," a remote bid to prevent the chamber's GOP majority from unleashing an unprecedented and severely damaging U.S. default.

Less than 24 hours after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the federal government may not be able to meet its financial obligations beyond June 1 unless Congress raises or suspends the nation's arbitrary borrowing limit before then, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) announced a so-called "discharge petition" effort to "avert the Republican-manufactured default crisis."

The rarely used gambit compels floor action on legislation backed by a majority of House lawmakers. Democrats are seeking to force a vote on a fresh bill to increase the debt ceiling over the objections of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who controls the floor and has demanded trillions of dollars in devastating spending cuts in exchange for the GOP votes needed to avoid a worldwide economic disaster.

As The Hill reported:

The discharge petition—an obscure mechanism empowering 218 lawmakers to pass bills the speaker refuses to consider—is almost never successful, because it requires members of the ruling party to defy their own leadership.

Democrats, with 213 members, would need to find five Republicans willing to sign on. And some Republicans are already warning that it'll never happen, especially after GOP leaders last week were successful in passing a debt ceiling package through the lower chamber.

"They're not going to get any Republicans," Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), head of the far-right Freedom Caucus, told the outlet. "We already passed our bill."

The so-called Limit, Save, Grow Act passed last week by House Republicans would raise the debt ceiling, but only in conjunction with measures to slash the nation's already tattered social safety net, weaken efforts to crack down on wealthy tax cheats, repeal clean energy investments, and more.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said the bill is "dead on arrival" in the upper chamber. President Joe Biden—who was vice president in 2011 when GOP lawmakers weaponized the debt ceiling to impose austerity and hurt the nation's credit score in the process—has also refused to entertain Republicans' plot to treat the global economy as a bargaining chip to advance attacks on programs that benefit working-class households.

According to The Hill: "Some moderate Republicans have already floated a willingness to join Democrats on a discharge petition if Congress inches too close to a federal default with no resolution in sight. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a co-chair of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, said earlier in the year that he might do so—'if that's necessary.'"

The challenge before House Democrats, in the words of Steven Harper, is to find "five rational Republicans willing to save the U.S. economy."

In a "Dear Colleague" letter sent to House Democrats on Tuesday, Jeffries wrote:

A dangerous default is not an option. Making sure that America pays its bills—and not the extreme ransom note demanded by Republicans—is the only responsible course of action. Since 1960, the debt ceiling has been extended or revised 78 separate times—49 under Republican administrations and 29 under Democratic presidents.

Most recently, under former President [Donald] Trump, Democrats voted three times to raise the debt ceiling without gamesmanship, brinksmanship, or partisanship. For the good of the country, extreme MAGA Republicans must do the same.

"House Democrats are working to make sure we have all options at our disposal to avoid a default," Jeffries added.

The newly revealed strategy was quietly hatched in January when Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) introduced "The Breaking the Gridlock Act" and kept confidential until now.

In the wake of Yellen's warning, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the top-ranked Democrat on the House Rules Committee, introduced a "special rule" on Tuesday, during a pro forma session held while the House was in recess.

"The next step in the process is filing a discharge petition, which will start the signature-gathering process," The Hill explained. "The petition, however, cannot be filed for seven legislative days after the special rule is introduced, meaning the earliest signatures can begin to be collected is on May 16."

According toThe New York Times, McGovern's "open-ended rule would provide a vehicle to bring Mr. DeSaulnier’s bill to the floor and amend it with a Democratic proposal—which has yet to be written—to resolve the debt limit crisis."

As the newspaper reported:

The strategy is no silver bullet, and Democrats concede it is a long shot. Gathering enough signatures to force a bill to the floor would take at least five Republicans willing to cross party lines if all Democrats signed on, a threshold that Democrats concede will be difficult to reach. They have yet to settle on the debt ceiling proposal itself, and for the strategy to succeed, Democrats would likely need to negotiate with a handful of mainstream Republicans to settle on a measure they could accept.

Still, Democrats argue that the prospect of a successful effort could force House Republicans into a more acceptable deal.

Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) described the discharge petition as "an extraordinary action to address the extraordinarily disastrous position Speaker McCarthy has put our country in."

"By using the debt ceiling as a ticking time bomb hanging over the heads of the American people," Crockett continued, "Republicans are threatening to send our country into a full recession if they don't get to check off every box on their extreme conservative wishlist."

"Republicans are treating this debt ceiling negotiation as a hostage situation—with the American people as the hostages," she added. "In response, House Democrats are taking action to bring a clean bill raising the debt ceiling to the floor and end this game of high-stakes political chicken."

According to the Times:

House Democratic leaders have for months played down the possibility of initiating a discharge petition as a way out of the stalemate. They are hesitant to budge from the party position, which Mr. Biden has articulated repeatedly, that Republicans should agree to raise the debt limit with no conditions or concessions on spending cuts.

But behind the scenes, they were simultaneously taking steps to make sure a vehicle was available if needed.

The discharge petition process can be time-consuming and complicated, so Democrats who devised the strategy started early and carefully crafted their legislative vehicle. Insiders privately refer to the measure as a "Swiss Army knife" bill—one that was intended to be referred to every single House committee in order to keep open as many opportunities as possible for forcing it to the floor.

The American Prospect's executive editor, David Dayen, warned on social media that "the timing of a discharge petition is such that this needed to start at the beginning of the Congressional session; probably too late now."

In the absence of congressional action, Yellen—who has supported proposals to permanently eliminate the federal government's borrowing cap as most countries around the world have done—still has the authority to avert an economic calamity by minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin.

On Monday, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich urged Biden to "play hardball by ignoring" the GOP. As legal experts have argued, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits "fiscal obstructionism," and even the right-wing-controlled U.S. Supreme Court, some observers predict, would likely support the Biden administration.

Clarence Thomas' Citizens United vote enabled billionaire benefactor to boost political power

A report published Monday highlights potential connections between the political influence of Harlan Crow's family and the billionaire GOP megadonor's yearslong endeavor to shower U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with lavish vacations and other undisclosed gifts.

Since Thomas provided a deciding vote in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, the Crow family's ability to influence federal elections has increased by a factor of almost nine, according to an Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) analysis of campaign finance data.

In Travel Rewards: What the Crow Family May Have Bought by Hosting Those Luxury Trips for Justice Thomas, ATF shows how Thomas' vote in the 5-4 decision that effectively legalized unlimited political spending has allowed the Crows to increase their average annual campaign contributions by 862%, from $163,241 pre-Citizens United to $1.57 million post-ruling.

While Thomas and Crow have denied any impropriety, recent revelations about their relationship have fueled fresh calls for the conservative justice to resign or face impeachment proceedings.

"The Crows used their fortune to buy access to and curry favor with one of the most powerful officials in Washington, then benefited from his central role in loosening rules meant to limit the influence of money over politics and policy," said ATF executive director David Kass.

"It's a vicious cycle that can only be short-circuited by restoring meaningful campaign finance rules and by demanding a much fairer share of taxes from billionaires, which, among other good results, will leave them less money to distort our democratic process," Kass added.

"The Crows' influence-buying and political spending are emblematic of a larger problem: the ongoing attempt by billionaires to purchase our democracy."

As ATF notes, the Crow family (Harlan, his wife, parents, siblings, and their family-owned businesses) has used its $2.5 billion fortune to influence elections for the past half-century.

But of the $25.8 million dollars the Crows donated to mostly GOP candidates from 1977 to 2022, $20.5 million (almost 80%) came in the 12 years after Thomas joined his fellow right-wing jurists in gutting campaign finance laws, the analysis points out.

ATF argues that "the Crows' influence-buying and political spending are emblematic of a larger problem: the ongoing attempt by billionaires to purchase our democracy."

In a report published last summer, the group documented how "billionaires are increasingly using their personal fortunes and the profits of connected corporations to drown out regular voters' voices and elect hand-picked candidates who further rig the nation's economy—especially the tax system."

Not counting dark money contributions, billionaires dumped $1.2 billion into the 2020 elections, 65 times more than the $16 million they donated in 2008, the report found. By last June, a few dozen billionaires had already pumped tens of millions of dollars into the 2022 midterms—mostly to support Republican candidates, including several election deniers—in a bid to ensure that Congress is full of lawmakers willing "to make their wealthy benefactors even richer."

"Billionaires shouldn't be able to buy political access and influence with their enormous fortunes," ATF tweeted Monday. "It's well beyond time for Citizens United to go, and to put real action towards making billionaires pay their fair share in taxes. Our democracy depends on it."

"It's well beyond time for Citizens United to go, and to put real action towards making billionaires pay their fair share in taxes. Our democracy depends on it."

In addition to benefiting from the Citizens United decision that has increased wealthy Americans' ability to shape electoral outcomes, Crow has connections to right-wing groups involved in Supreme Court cases since Thomas was first confirmed to the bench in 1991.

Crow's financial ties to Thomas, which the jurist failed to disclose and only came to light last month thanks to investigative reporting by ProPublica, go beyond decades of all-expenses-paid trips valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For instance, four years after Thomas helped deliver a victory to U.S. oligarchs in Citizens United, Crow purchased a property owned by Thomas for $130,000 and made improvements to it while the judge's mother continued to live there.

Thomas is not alone when it comes to conflicts of interest on the high court. Last week, Politicorevealed that just days after his April 2017 confirmation, Justice Neil Gorsuch and his business partners sold a 40-acre Colorado ranch for almost $2 million to an undisclosed person. The buyer, Brian Duffy, is the CEO of a law firm that has since been involved in 22 cases before the court.

Despite growing evidence of possible corruption, Chief Justice John Roberts has refused to accept an invitation to testify at an upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on potential reforms to the Supreme Court, which is currently controlled by six far-right justices, most of whom were appointed by Republican presidents who lost the popular vote.

Progressives have demanded far-reaching changes to disempower the country's "rogue" justices, including adding seats—a move that has been made seven times throughout U.S. history—and enacting robust ethics rules.

Polling data shows that public approval of the Supreme Court has declined sharply in the months since its reactionary supermajority eliminated the constitutional right to abortion care, among other harmful and unpopular decisions. According to a survey conducted in April, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults no longer have confidence in the nation's chief judicial body.

'I will never forget his face,' says tortured Gitmo detainee after DeSantis denies encounter

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday scolded a journalist for asking him about his time working as a naval judge advocate general at the U.S. penal colony in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

During an event at Israel's Museum of Tolerance, DeSantis was asked about allegations that he was present on at least one occasion when a former Guantánamo detainee was force-fed by guards to quash a hunger strike. The United Nations has deemed force-feeding a form of torture.

Before the reporter could finish his question, DeSantis, who is believed to be preparing a bid for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, snapped, "No, no... all that's BS, totally BS."

After the journalist completed his question, DeSantis angrily responded: "Who said that? How would they know me? Okay, think about that. Do you honestly believe that's credible?... This is 2006, I'm a junior officer, do you honestly think that they would have remembered me from Adam? Of course not!"

In response, Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni citizen who was incarcerated without charges at Guantánamo for 14 years, tweeted, "I will never forget his face, he was laughing and smiling watching me being tortured on the force-feeding chair."

While chastising the reporter, DeSantis, who is trying to crack down on press freedom in Florida, accused Adayfi of "trying to get into the news because they know people like you will consume it because it fits your preordained narrative that you're trying to spin."

"Focus on the facts and stop worrying about the narrative," DeSantis said.

Adayfi, who was finally released from Guantánamo in 2016 without ever being charged with a crime, first told Mike Prysner's Eyes Left podcast in November that guards brutally force-fed him and other prisoners cans of Ensure in 2006 to break a hunger strike and that DeSantis was there for at least one torture session.

"Ron DeSantis was there watching us. We were crying, screaming," said Adayfi. "We were tied to the feeding chair. And that guy was watching that. He was laughing."

Unable to handle the amount of Ensure being crammed into his body through his nostrils, "I threw up on his face," Adayfi said. "Literally. On his face."

"When I was screaming, I look at him [Ron DeSantis] and he was actually smiling. Like someone who enjoyed it," Adayfi added. "It shocked us all."

In March, Adayfi toldThe Independent that he doesn't "remember exactly when DeSantis came because we had no watch, no calendar, nothing."

According to Adayfi, DeSantis feigned concern for the detainees' welfare before watching them endure torture: "He came to talk to us along [with] others—medical staff and interpreters. And we explained to him why we were on hunger strike. And he told us, 'I'm here to ensure that you get treated humanely and properly.' We were talking about our problems with the brothers, the torture, the abuses, the no healthcare."

An investigation by The Independent confirmed that DeSantis' role as an attorney at Guantánamo was to field complaints of illegal treatment. A second former prisoner has claimed the Florida governor witnessed forced feeding. Following his stint at Guantánamo, DeSantis advocated for its continued operation and against the release of detainees.

In an Al Jazeera opinion piece published earlier this month, Adayfi explained how he came to recognize DeSantis:

In 2021, just as my memoirDon't Forget Us Here, Lost and Found at Guantánamo—was about to be published, I was on Twitter and saw a photo of a handsome man in a white navy uniform. It was Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. I do not remember what the post was about—probably something about him clashing with President Joe Biden over Covid policies. But I remembered his face. It was a face I could never forget. I had seen that face for the first time in Guantánamo, in 2006—one of the camp's darkest years when the authorities started violently breaking hunger strikes and three of my brothers were found dead in their cages.

After finding a Miami Heraldarticle in which DeSantis bragged about his service at Guantánamo and confirming that my memory is correct, I sent his photo to a group chat of former detainees. Several replied that they too remembered his face from Guantánamo. Some said seeing his face again triggered painful memories of the trauma they suffered during their imprisonment. I understood. Even after spending the previous few years working on my memoir, which meant reliving everything I had been through at Guantánamo, seeing his face again triggered a lot of pain in me too.

As Adayfi pointed out, "DeSantis still calls Guantánamo a 'terrorist detention facility,' even though back in 2006, the year he was there, an analysis of official documents found that the great majority of the Guantánamo prisoners were innocent men, imprisoned only because of mistaken identity or because they had been sold to the U.S. for bounty money."

"Regardless of these facts, DeSantis advocated keeping Guantánamo open in his 2016 testimony before the Subcommittee on National Security, in which he claimed that all detainees were 'hardened and unrepentant terrorist[s],' whose release 'risks harming America's national security,'" Adayfi wrote.

"At the time of DeSantis' speech, 80 prisoners remained at Guantánamo. I was one of them," he continued. "Of the 779 men held at Guantánamo since it opened in 2002, only 12 have been charged with crimes. Only two have been convicted. I wonder who DeSantis was talking about."

Adayfi, who was just 18 years old when he was sent to Guantánamo in 2002, is one of several people released in recent years. But as human rights defenders made clear on January 11, the 21st anniversary of Guantánamo's opening, they won't stop fighting until the notorious military prison is shut down for good.

As GOP targets food aid, House Dems remind McCarthy of $1.9 trillion in Trump tax cuts

Before House Speaker Kevin McCarthy opened debate Wednesday on a bill that would raise the nation's debt ceiling while gutting social programs and imposing more barriers to access them, nearly 200 House Democrats from across the ideological spectrum signed a letter imploring Republican deficit hawks to drop their demands and pass a clean hike.

Since Washington's arbitrary and arguably unconstitutional borrowing limit was breached in January, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has implemented "extraordinary measures" enabling the U.S. government to meet its financial obligations for a few additional months. Unless President Joe Biden's administration takes unilateral action to disarm the debt ceiling, Congress has until sometime between July and September to increase or suspend the federal borrowing cap. If Republicans refuse to do so, the U.S. is poised to suffer an unprecedented default that would have catastrophic impacts both domestically and globally.

Fully aware of the stakes, GOP lawmakers are holding the economy hostage in a bid to further weaken the nation's comparatively meager welfare state and its insufficient climate policies. Last week, McCarthy (R-Calif.) unveiled the so-called Limit, Save, Grow Act, which would raise the debt ceiling, but only in conjunction with measures to peg discretionary spending at fiscal year 2022 levels through 2033; establish new work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries and expand work requirements for recipients of food aid and income support; force through a Big Oil-friendly energy package; repeal recently approved clean energy investments and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) funding; eliminate Biden's contested student debt cancellation plan; claw back unspent Covid-19 relief money; and require congressional approval before any major federal regulations can take effect.

Wednesday's letter—led by House Budget Committee Ranking Member Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and New Democrat Coalition Chair Annie Kuster (D-N.H.)—calls on McCarthy to fulfill his duty to "uphold the full faith and credit" of the U.S. by "allowing prompt floor consideration of legislation to raise the debt ceiling without any extraneous policies attached."

House Democrats pointed out that "congressional Republicans voted to raise the debt ceiling without preconditions or crisis on three separate occasions" under former President Donald Trump and urged them "to do the same on this occasion."

Democratic lawmakers also reminded McCarthy—who recently described the national debt as "the greatest threat to our future"—that "congressional Republicans voted to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in 2017, which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated would increase the federal deficit by $1.9 trillion over 10 years, with 83% of the law's benefits estimated to accrue to the richest 1% by 2027."

Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) recently contrasted GOP lawmakers' willingness to attack the poor and slash popular initiatives like Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with their previous support for the highly regressive and deeply unpopular TCJA, which corporations and the wealthy enthusiastically welcomed when Trump signed it into law.

"In tax cuts in 2017 passed by the other side of the aisle, we see wonderful tax cuts for yacht owners and private jets," said Ocasio-Cortez. "But in order to balance our budget now, we're talking about cuts to SNAP, take food out of babies' mouths, instead of actually reexamining the inequities within our tax system."

As the letter notes, "The first act of House Republicans in the 118th Congress... was passing legislation—which Democrats unanimously opposed—to rescind funding for IRS enforcement against tax evasion by wealthy individuals and large corporations. The CBO estimated that by reducing revenue, that legislation would increase the deficit by $114 billion over 10 years."

In addition to refusing to consider how creating a fairer tax code and cracking down on tax dodging would increase revenue, GOP lawmakers have shown little interest in shrinking the ever-expanding U.S. military budget.

Overall, the Limit, Save, Grow Act—heavily influenced by the far-right House Freedom Caucus' austerity blueprint—would reduce the federal deficit by roughly $4.8 trillion over 10 years, according to a CBO estimate published Tuesday.

But as journalist Bryce Covert observed, it's essential to remember that this meaningless achievement would be realized in part by taking away Medicaid and SNAP benefits from millions of people.

In a Wednesday blog post, Josh Bivens and Samantha Sanders of the Economic Policy Institute warned that if McCarthy's "deeply unrealistic spending cuts actually came to pass, the human toll would be enormous, and economic growth would be deeply damaged."

"The McCarthy proposal," they wrote, "also resurfaces a completely inaccurate but alarmingly persistent conservative claim: the idea that government anti-poverty programs are unnecessarily generous, bloated, and are keeping people out of the workforce who should otherwise be supporting themselves entirely through income earned in the labor market."

"The U.S. safety net is in serious need of reforms, but not because of inaccurate claims that its excess generosity keeps people out of work," they continued. "The biggest problem with the U.S. safety net is that our programs don't help as many people, or as effectively, as they should."

Echoing House Democrats, Bivens and Sanders derided McCarthy's claim that his proposal would put the U.S. on a path to "fiscal responsibility" and lower inflation as "laughable."

"The biggest driver of deficits for the last 20 years has been a steady trend toward ever-larger tax cuts for corporations and the richest U.S. households," the pair wrote. "No one who actually wants to reduce the federal deficit should be looking to do that on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable Americans."

In their letter, House Democrats said that "instead of supporting an agenda of deficit-exploding tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations, we welcome an honest discussion regarding the federal budget that makes clear that the deficit is made up of revenues and investments and that sustainable fiscal solutions will ensure our revenues match the level of investments needed to maintain our economic growth and prosperity."

However, the CPC tweeted, "negotiations on what the government is spending its money on have a time and place—the yearly budget process."

"Republicans are welcome to try to get their extremist wish list met that way," the group added. "But that must happen separately from the threat of U.S. default."

The GOP cleared a key procedural hurdle on Wednesday afternoon when the House approved the rule governing debate on the Limit, Save, Grow Act in a 219-210 party-line vote. McCarthy is seeking to pass the legislation later on Wednesday.

North Dakota GOP approves near-total abortion ban after rejecting free school lunches

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota on Monday signed one of the nation's most draconian abortion bans into law, just weeks after the state's GOP lawmakers shot down a proposal to provide free school lunches to low-income students.

The new forced pregnancy law, which takes immediate effect, prohibits abortion care in nearly all cases. Abortion is allowed in cases of rape or incest, but only during the first six weeks of pregnancy—before many people realize they are pregnant. Abortion is also allowed without gestational limits if terminating a pregnancy could prevent the pregnant person's "death or a serious health risk."

North Dakota is one of several states where dormant abortion bans took immediate effect last June when the U.S. Supreme Court's reactionary majority overturnedRoe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that had legalized the healthcare procedure nationwide.

However, "North Dakota's trigger ban was blocked last year by a district judge, after its sole abortion provider, the Red River Women's Clinic, filed a lawsuit against the law," The New York Times reported Monday. "The state Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling last month and said the state constitution protected abortion rights in some situations."

Burgum, a former vice president at Microsoft, said in a statement that North Dakota's new forced pregnancy law "clarifies and refines" the existing abortion ban that has been blocked by courts.

As the Times noted:

Under the earlier ban, providers who performed an abortion to save the life of a mother could face felony prosecution. The provider would need to offer an "affirmative defense" proving that the abortion was medically necessary within the confines of the state law.

Under the new version of the law, the exceptions do not require an affirmative defense from providers. But providers could still face criminal charges if they violate the exceptions detailed in the law.

Elisabeth Smith, director of state policy and advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights, accused North Dakota lawmakers of "attempting to bypass the state constitution and court system with this total ban."

"They made the exceptions a little bit less narrow but essentially tried to repackage the trigger ban," she told the Times.

North Dakota has been completely bereft of abortion clinics since August, when the Fargo-based Red River Women's Clinic moved its operations a short distance across the border to Moorhead, Minnesota. But as the Times reported, Center for Reproductive Rights attorneys representing the clinic "say it is important to ensure that the ban does not take effect, so that patients facing medical emergencies can receive abortions in hospitals and from their doctors."

As the lawsuit opposing North Dakota's currently enjoined abortion ban proceeds, fresh legal challenges to the state's new forced pregnancy law are expected.

"I don't think women in North Dakota are going to accept this, and there will be action in the future to get our rights back," state Rep. Liz Conmy (D-11) toldThe Associated Press. "Our Legislature is overwhelmingly pro-pregnancy, but I think women in the state would like to make their own decisions."

Burgum, who also signed a bill prohibiting gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth last week, argued that the new abortion ban "reaffirms North Dakota as a pro-life state."

Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, however, contrasted North Dakota Republicans' willingness to enact a forced pregnancy law with their refusal last month to expand access to free school lunches.

Condemning GOP lawmakers and officials, Newsom summarized their position as follows: "Mandating birth is state responsibility. Helping feed those kids is not."

Just 10 days after North Dakota Republicans rejected a bill that would have broadened eligibility for free school lunches, they voted in early April to increase their own daily meal reimbursements from $35 to $45, adding insult to injury.

"I'm beyond enraged at these cruel backward MAGA extremist politicians," tweeted human rights lawyer Qasim Rashid. "A special place in hell."

In sharp contrast to their counterparts in Bismarck, North Dakota, lawmakers in St. Paul recently made Minnesota the fourth state to guarantee universal free school meals.

Meanwhile, a first-of-its-kind lawsuit filed last month by five Texas women whose lives were endangered by that state's near-total abortion ban underscores the spurious nature of so-called "abortion exceptions," as Common Dreamsreported.

With its new law, North Dakota became at least the 14th state with an active ban on nearly all abortions. Additional states have slightly less restrictive prohibitions in place.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 6-3 opinion last summer in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ended the constitutional right to abortion and turned regulation of the procedure over to individual states, leaving tens of millions of people without access to lifesaving reproductive healthcare.

The ruling's elimination of federal protections has enabled right-wing lawmakers to prohibit or restrict abortion in more than half of the states, unleashing a life-threatening crisis that human rights advocates consider a violation of U.S. obligations under international law.

Experts demand 'pause' on spread of artificial intelligence until regulations imposed

"Until meaningful government safeguards are in place to protect the public from the harms of generative AI, we need a pause."

So says a report on the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) published Tuesday by Public Citizen. Titled Sorry in Advance! Rapid Rush to Deploy Generative AI Risks a Wide Array of Automated Harms, the analysis by researchers Rick Claypool and Cheyenne Hunt aims to "reframe the conversation around generative AI to ensure that the public and policymakers have a say in how these new technologies might upend our lives."

Following the November release of OpenAI's ChatGPT, generative AI tools have been receiving "a huge amount of buzz—especially among the Big Tech corporations best positioned to profit from them," the report notes. "The most enthusiastic boosters say AI will change the world in ways that make everyone rich—and some detractors say it could kill us all. Separate from frightening threats that may materialize as the technology evolves are real-world harms the rush to release and monetize these tools can cause—and, in many cases, is already causing."

Claypool and Hunt categorized these harms into "five broad areas of concern":

  • Damaging Democracy: Misinformation-spreading spambots aren't new, but generative AI tools easily allow bad actors to mass produce deceptive political content. Increasingly powerful audio and video production AI tools are making authentic content harder to distinguish [from] synthetic content.
  • Consumer Concerns: Businesses trying to maximize profits using generative AI are using these tools to gobble up user data, manipulate consumers, and concentrate advantages among the biggest corporations. Scammers are using them to engage in increasingly sophisticated rip-off schemes.
  • Worsening Inequality: Generative AI tools risk perpetuating and exacerbating systemic biases such [as] racism [and] sexism. They give bullies and abusers new ways to harm victims, and, if their widespread deployment proves consequential, risk significantly accelerating economic inequality.
  • Undermining Worker Rights: Companies developing AI tools use texts and images created by humans to train their models—and employ low-wage workers abroad to help filter out disturbing and offensive content. Automating media creation, as some AI does, risks deskilling and replacing media production work performed by humans.
  • Environmental Concerns: Training and maintaining generative AI tools requires significant expansions in computing power—expansions in computing power that are increasing faster than technology developers' ability to absorb the demands with efficiency advances. Mass deployment is expected to require that some of the biggest tech companies increase their computing power—and, thus, their carbon footprints—by four or five times.

In a statement, Public Citizen warned that "businesses are deploying potentially dangerous AI tools faster than their harms can be understood or mitigated."

"History offers no reason to believe that corporations can self-regulate away the known risks—especially since many of these risks are as much a part of generative AI as they are of corporate greed," the statement continues. "Businesses rushing to introduce these new technologies are gambling with peoples' lives and livelihoods, and arguably with the very foundations of a free society and livable world."

On Thursday, April 27, Public Citizen is hosting a hybrid in-person/Zoom conference in Washington, D.C., during which U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and 10 other panelists will discuss the threats posed by AI and how to rein in the rapidly growing yet virtually unregulated industry. People interested in participating must register by this Friday.

"Businesses rushing to introduce these new technologies are gambling with peoples' lives and livelihoods, and arguably with the very foundations of a free society and livable world."

Demands to regulate AI are mounting. Last month, Geoffrey Hinton, considered the "godfather of artificial intelligence," compared the quickly advancing technology's potential impacts to "the Industrial Revolution, or electricity, or maybe the wheel."

Asked by CBS News' Brook Silva-Braga about the possibility of the technology "wiping out humanity," Hinton warned that "it's not inconceivable."

That frightening potential doesn't necessarily lie with existing AI tools such as ChatGPT, but rather with what is called "artificial general intelligence" (AGI), through which computers develop and act on their own ideas.

"Until quite recently, I thought it was going to be like 20 to 50 years before we have general-purpose AI," Hinton told CBS News. "Now I think it may be 20 years or less." Eventually, Hinton admitted that he wouldn't rule out the possibility of AGI arriving within five years—a major departure from a few years ago when he "would have said, 'No way.'"

"We have to think hard about how to control that," said Hinton. Asked by Silva-Braga if that's possible, Hinton said, "We don't know, we haven't been there yet, but we can try."

The AI pioneer is far from alone. In February, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman wrote in a company blog post: "The risks could be extraordinary. A misaligned superintelligent AGI could cause grievous harm to the world."

More than 26,000 people have signed a recently published open letter that calls for a six-month moratorium on training AI systems beyond the level of OpenAI's latest chatbot, GPT-4, although Altman is not among them.

"Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable," says the letter.

While AGI may still be a few years away, Public Citizen's new report makes clear that existing AI tools—including chatbots spewing lies, face-swapping apps generating fake videos, and cloned voices committing fraud—are already causing or threatening to cause serious harm, including intensifying inequality, undermining democracy, displacing workers, preying on consumers, and exacerbating the climate crisis.

These threats "are all very real and highly likely to occur if corporations are permitted to deploy generative AI without enforceable guardrails," Claypool and Hunt wrote. "But there is nothing inevitable about them."

They continued:

Government regulation can block companies from deploying the technologies too quickly (or block them altogether if they prove unsafe). It can set standards to protect people from the risks. It can impose duties on companies using generative AI to avoid identifiable harms, respect the interests of communities and creators, pretest their technologies, take responsibility, and accept liability if things go wrong. It can demand equity be built into the technologies. It can insist that if generative AI does, in fact, increase productivity and displace workers, or that the economic benefits be shared with those harmed and not be concentrated among a small circle of companies, executives, and investors.

Amid "growing regulatory interest" in an AI "accountability mechanism," the Biden administration announced last week that it is seeking public input on measures that could be implemented to ensure that "AI systems are legal, effective, ethical, safe, and otherwise trustworthy."

According toAxios, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is "taking early steps toward legislation to regulate artificial intelligence technology."

In the words of Claypool and Hunt: "We need strong safeguards and government regulation—and we need them in place before corporations disseminate AI technology widely. Until then, we need a pause."

Experts fear future AI could cause 'nuclear-level catastrophe'

While nearly three-quarters of researchers believe artificial intelligence "could soon lead to revolutionary social change," 36% worry that AI decisions "could cause nuclear-level catastrophe."

Those survey findings are included in the 2023 AI Index Report, an annual assessment of the fast-growing industry assembled by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence and published earlier this month.

"These systems demonstrate capabilities in question answering, and the generation of text, image, and code unimagined a decade ago, and they outperform the state of the art on many benchmarks, old and new," says the report. "However, they are prone to hallucination, routinely biased, and can be tricked into serving nefarious aims, highlighting the complicated ethical challenges associated with their deployment."

As Al Jazeera reported Friday, the analysis "comes amid growing calls for regulation of AI following controversies ranging from a chatbot-linked suicide to deepfake videos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appearing to surrender to invading Russian forces."

Notably, the survey measured the opinions of 327 experts in natural language processing—a branch of computer science essential to the development of chatbots—last May and June, months before the November release of OpenAI's ChatGPT "took the tech world by storm," the news outlet reported.

"A misaligned superintelligent AGI could cause grievous harm to the world."

Just three weeks ago, Geoffrey Hinton, considered the "godfather of artificial intelligence," told CBS News' Brook Silva-Braga that the rapidly advancing technology's potential impacts are comparable to "the Industrial Revolution, or electricity, or maybe the wheel."

Asked about the chances of the technology "wiping out humanity," Hinton warned that "it's not inconceivable."

That alarming potential doesn't necessarily lie with currently existing AI tools such as ChatGPT, but rather with what is called "artificial general intelligence" (AGI), which would encompass computers developing and acting on their own ideas.

"Until quite recently, I thought it was going to be like 20 to 50 years before we have general-purpose AI," Hinton told CBS News. "Now I think it may be 20 years or less."

Pressed by Silva-Braga if it could happen sooner, Hinton conceded that he wouldn't rule out the possibility of AGI arriving within five years, a significant change from a few years ago when he "would have said, 'No way.'"

"We have to think hard about how to control that," said Hinton. Asked if that's possible, Hinton said, "We don't know, we haven't been there yet, but we can try."

The AI pioneer is far from alone. According to the survey of computer scientists conducted last year, 57% said that "recent progress is moving us toward AGI," and 58% agreed that "AGI is an important concern."

In February, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman wrote in a company blog post: "The risks could be extraordinary. A misaligned superintelligent AGI could cause grievous harm to the world."

More than 25,000 people have signed an open letter published two weeks ago that calls for a six-month moratorium on training AI systems beyond the level of OpenAI's latest chatbot, GPT-4, although Altman is not among them.

"Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable," says the letter.

The Financial Times reported Friday that Tesla and Twitter CEO Elon Musk, who signed the letter calling for a pause, is "developing plans to launch a new artificial intelligence start-up to compete with" OpenAI.

"It's very reasonable for people to be worrying about those issues now."

Regarding AGI, Hinton said: "It's very reasonable for people to be worrying about those issues now, even though it's not going to happen in the next year or two. People should be thinking about those issues."

While AGI may still be a few years away, fears are already mounting that existing AI tools—including chatbots spouting lies, face-swapping apps generating fake videos, and cloned voices committing fraud—are poised to turbocharge the spread of misinformation.

According to a 2022 IPSOS poll of the general public included in the new Stanford report, people in the U.S. are particularly wary of AI, with just 35% agreeing that "products and services using AI had more benefits than drawbacks," compared with 78% of people in China, 76% in Saudi Arabia, and 71% in India.

Amid "growing regulatory interest" in an AI "accountability mechanism," the Biden administration announced this week that it is seeking public input on measures that could be implemented to ensure that "AI systems are legal, effective, ethical, safe, and otherwise trustworthy."

Axios reported Thursday that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is "taking early steps toward legislation to regulate artificial intelligence technology."

We are 'just beginning,' Tennessee GOP boasts in fundraiser after expelling Democrats

The Tennessee Republican Party waited less than 24 hours to start fundraising off the expulsion of two progressive lawmakers from the state House—openly bragging Friday about what critics have called a blatantly anti-democratic move that shows the party's growing authoritarianism.

State Reps. Justin Jones (D-52) and Justin Pearson (D-86) are two of three Democrats who joined protesters in interrupting a floor session on March 30 to demand gun control in the wake of last week's deadly school shooting in Nashville. Tennessee House Republicans on Thursday voted to expel both Black men from the chamber while a vote to expel their colleague Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-13), who is white, fell short.

In a Friday fundraising email, the Tennessee GOP said: "Their adolescence and immature behavior brought dishonor to the Tennessee General Assembly as they admitted to knowingly breaking the rules. Actions have consequences, and we applaud House Republicans for having the conviction to protect the rules, the laws, and the prestige of the State of Tennessee."

"Our fight is just beginning," the email concludes.

Progressives members of Congress had already denounced Tennessee Republicans for engaging in what U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) called "straight-up fascism in its ugliest, most racist form" before the fundraising email emerged.

Now, the Tennessee GOP is portraying the state's first partisan expulsion since the Civil War era as upholding "the rule of law" and is trying to capitalize on it.

Slate's Alexander Sammon warned that Thursday's vote "is a chilling portent of the future of Republican governance and the state of democracy nationwide."

"While Republicans have focused on gerrymandering and voter suppression as the primary prongs of their assault on democracy (as well as the occasional insurrection attempt)," he noted, "the willingness to expel democratically elected Democrats for minor-verging-on-made-up infractions portends a terrifying new development."

In a Friday statement, Public Citizen president Robert Weissman condemned Tennessee House Republicans for "summarily ending" the current terms of Jones and Pearson and "depriving their constituents of duly elected representation."

"This was a racist and disproportionate act of retaliation against legislators who had joined demonstrators chanting in the chamber, in protest of Republican refusal to adopt commonsense gun control measures in the wake of the March 27 school shooting in Nashville," said Weissman, who called Tennessee Republicans' move "flagrantly anti-democratic."

"American democracy is in a profound crisis... What just happened in Tennessee is yet another reminder of the perilous state of our country."

"In modern American history, expulsion of state legislators is very rare—not just in Tennessee but throughout the United States, and rightfully so. Legislators should expel elected officials only in extreme circumstances, not over policy differences or impingements on decorum," he continued. "Legislative supermajorities already have enormous power; when they wield that power to strip away even the offices of the minority, they are treading on very dangerous ground."

As Weissman pointed out, "Some Tennessee legislators—and a lot of MAGA commentary online—are un-ironically calling the state representatives' chanting an 'insurrection.'"

"Of course, the United States did witness a real insurrection on January 6, 2021," said Weissman. "Not one member of Congress was expelled for promoting [former President] Donald Trump's patently false claims that the 2020 election was 'stolen' from him or for supporting the attempted coup carried out at Trump's behest. Only 10 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives would vote to impeach Trump in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, and only two of them were able to get re-elected."

"American democracy is in a profound crisis, driven by lies, right-wing extremism, conspiratorial thinking, and subservience to corporate and special interests, and racism," Weissman stressed. "What just happened in Tennessee is yet another reminder of the perilous state of our country."

Nevertheless, he continued, "a hopeful future is also a visible feature of our nation, demonstrated in the courage and principle of the targeted representatives... and the energy and commitment of the protesters—overwhelmingly young people—demanding justice and commonsense gun regulation."

"This is a powerful reminder that democracy does not die easily," Weissman added. "Indeed, the energy in Tennessee will help inspire and power the nationwide movement not just to defend but to expand and deepen our democracy, and we are committed to rising to the occasion, and being part of this movement to make our country a more just and equitable place for all."

Glaciologist says new melting study 'frankly scary. Even to me.'

Peer-reviewed research out Wednesday shows that parts of a huge ice sheet covering Eurasia retreated up to 2,000 feet per day at the end of the last ice age—by far the fastest rate measured to date.

The new finding, published in the journal Nature, upends "what scientists previously thought were the upper speed limits for ice sheet retreat," The Washington Post reported, and it has sparked fears about "how quickly ice in Greenland and Antarctica could melt and raise global sea levels in today's warming world."

As the Post explained:

Scientists monitor ice sheet retreat rates to better estimate contributions to global sea-level rise. Antarctica and Greenland have lost more than 6.4 trillion tons of ice since the 1990s, boosting global sea levels by at least 0.7 inches (17.8 millimeters). Together, the two ice sheets are responsible for more than one-third of total sea-level rise.

The rapid retreat found on the Eurasian ice sheet far outpaces the fastest-moving glaciers studied in Antarctica, which have been measured to retreat as quickly as 160 feet per day. Once the ice retreats toward the land, it lifts from its grounding on the seafloor and begins to float, allowing it to flow faster and increase the contribution to sea-level rise.

If air and ocean temperatures around Antarctica were to increase as projected and match those at the end of the last ice age, researchers say ice marching backward hundreds of feet in a day could trigger a collapse of modern-day glaciers sooner than previously thought. That could be devastating for global sea levels.

"If temperatures continue to rise, then we might have the ice being melted and thinned from above as well as from below," lead author Christine Batchelor, a physical geographer at Newcastle University, told the newspaper. "That could kind of end up with a scenario that looks more similar to what we had [off] Norway after the last glaciation."

Using ship-borne imagery of ridges along the seafloor, Batchelor and her colleagues found that the Norwegian continental ice shelf retreated 180 to 2,000 feet per day, with the fastest retreat rates lasting for a period of days to a few months.

"This is not a model. This is real observation," Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California at Irvine who was not involved in the new study, told the Post. "And it is frankly scary. Even to me."

Prior to the publication of the new research, one of the fastest glacial retreat rates detected was at Pope Glacier in West Antarctica. This smaller glacier is not far from the massive Thwaites Glacier, which is nicknamed the "doomsday glacier" due to projections about how its melting is poised to contribute significantly to sea-level rise.

Rignot was part of the team that published a paper last year documenting the retreat of Pope Glacier. Based on satellite calculations, the 2022 study found that during a period in 2017, the glacier retreated at a rate of roughly 105 feet per day, or about 20 times slower than the fastest rate detected for the Eurasian ice sheet in the new study.

"Ice sheets are retreating fast today, [especially] in Antarctica," Rignot said Wednesday. "But we see traces in the seafloor that the retreat could go faster, way faster, and this is a reminder that we have not seen everything yet."

Temperature rise, meanwhile, shows no signs of slowing down.

Before last year's COP27 climate summit—which ended, like the 26 meetings before it, with no concrete plan to rapidly move away from planet-heating fossil fuels—the U.N. warned that existing emissions reductions targets and policies are so inadequate that there is "no credible path" currently in place to achieve the Paris agreement's goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, beyond which impacts will grow increasingly deadly, particularly for people in low-income countries who have done the least to cause the crisis.

The U.N. made clear that only "urgent system-wide transformation" can prevent catastrophic temperature rise of up to 2.9°C by 2100, but oil and gas corporations—bolstered by trillions of dollars in annual public subsidies—are still planning to expand fossil fuel production in the coming years, prioritizing short-term profits over the lives of those who will be harmed by the resulting climate chaos.

'Noah's wounds were not survivable': Parents allow detailed view of AR-15 carnage

On Monday morning, The Washington Post published a series of 3D animations to show "how bullets from an AR-15 blow the body apart."

A few hours later, a 28-year-old shooter armed with two assault rifles and a handgun killed six people at a private Christian school in Nashville.

In the wake of that massacre—the 129th mass shooting in the United States in 2023—the Post's exposé has received sustained attention, with one person calling it "the most powerful article you will read this week" and another characterizing it as "one of the most important pieces of journalism ever produced."

Noting that the lethal wounds caused by AR-15s "are rarely seen" by the public, the newspaper demonstrated "the trajectory of two different hypothetical gunshots to the chest—one from an AR-15 and another from a typical handgun—to explain the greater severity of the damage caused by the AR-15."

Then, after obtaining permission from the parents of two school shooting victims, a team of visual reporters created 3D models to depict how bullets fired from "many mass killers' weapon of choice" obliterated their children's bodies.

Noah Ponzer was one of the 26 people who were killed by an AR-15-wielding gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. The 6-year-old was shot three times.

"Noah's wounds were not survivable," the Post reported, citing 2019 court testimony from Wayne Carver, who was the state's chief medical examiner at the time.

Peter Wang was one of 17 people murdered when an attacker armed with an AR-15 opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018. The 15-year-old was shot 13 times.

As the Post reported: "The combined energy of those bullets created exit wounds so 'gaping' that the autopsy described his head as 'deformed.' Blood and brain splatter were found on his upper body and the walls. That degree of destruction, according to medical experts, is possible only with a high-velocity weapon."

"This is the trauma witnessed by first responders—but rarely, if ever, seen by the public or the policymakers who write gun laws," the newspaper noted.

Instead, many GOP lawmakers glorify assault rifles, including U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.), whose congressional district is home to the Nashville school where Monday's deadly shooting took place.

Another right-wing member of Tennessee's congressional delegation—Republican Rep. Tim Burchett—baldly stated that "we're not gonna fix it" just hours after the shooting.

There are more guns than people in the United States. Due to National Rifle Association-bankrolled Republicans' opposition to meaningful gun safety laws—bolstered by a 2022 ruling handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court's reactionary majority—it is relatively easy for people to purchase firearms in many states.

Two years ago, Tennessee became one of several states that allow most adults to carry handguns without a permit.

There have been thousands of mass shootings since Noah and more than two dozen other individuals suffered gruesome deaths at Sandy Hook, including last year's slaughter at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, among hundreds of others. Research shows that U.S. states with weaker gun control laws and higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of mass shootings.

Research also shows that gun regulations with high levels of public support, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, help reduce the number and severity of fatal mass shootings.

Guns recently became the leading cause of death among children and teens in the United States. A study published last year found that roughly 26,000 kids could still be alive today if the U.S. had the same gun mortality rate as Canada.

Entire towns evacuated as climate-fueled wildfires start 'very early' in Spain

A large wildfire raging in Spain's eastern Valencia region forced more than 1,500 people to flee their homes on Friday, providing further evidence of life-threatening consequences of the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis and bolstering the case for meaningful mitigation efforts.

Since it broke out in the municipality of Villanueva de Viver on Thursday, Spain's first major wildfire of the year has destroyed more than 7,400 acres of forest, prompting evacuation orders in eight communities across the Castellón province.

As residents sought refuge in shelters run by the Red Cross and other charities, more than 500 firefighters—supported by 18 planes and helicopters—were still attempting to contain the blaze on Friday afternoon.

"While firefighters believed they were managing to control the spread of the flames, strong winds and 'practically summertime temperatures' could reactivate it," Reuters reported, citing a local official.

"Summer is getting longer, it is arriving earlier, and the availability of water and humidity in the soil is unfortunately being reduced, making us much more vulnerable."

Ximo Puig, president of the Valencia region, told reporters the fire came "very early in the spring" and was "very voracious from the beginning."

It's not yet clear what sparked the blaze, but after months of arid conditions in the region, there's no shortage of dry fuel that can act as kindling. Climate scientists have long warned that as unmitigated greenhouse gas pollution causes temperatures to rise and droughts to worsen, wildfire seasons will grow longer and the number and severity of conflagrations will increase.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said, "These fires we're seeing, especially this early in the year, are once again proof of the climate emergency that humanity is living through, which particularly affects and ravages countries such as ours."

According to Reuters, "An unusually dry winter across parts of the south of the European continent has reduced moisture in the soil and raised fears of a repeat of 2022."

Last year, wildfires destroyed nearly two million acres of land throughout Europe—more than double the annual average over the past 16 years, according to the European Commission. In Spain alone, 493 blazes wiped out more than 750,000 acres.

People in Spain, already suffering from a long-term drought marked by three years of below-average rainfall, are bracing for drier and hotter weather than usual this spring along the country's northeastern Mediterranean coast.

Experts have already started sounding the alarm about the likelihood of another catastrophic year for wildfires, especially if the frequency, duration, and intensity of heatwaves are comparable to last year, which saw records toppled.

"There is every reason to fear that this year too there will be numerous and widespread events."

"Out-of-season fires" are becoming increasingly common, Spanish Environment Minister Teresa Ribera told reporters this week. "Summer is getting longer, it is arriving earlier, and the availability of water and humidity in the soil is unfortunately being reduced, making us much more vulnerable."

Spain is far from alone. "A European Commission report this month observed a lack of rain and warmer-than-normal temperatures during the winter, raising drought warnings for southern Spain, France, Ireland, Britain, northern Italy, Greece, and parts of eastern Europe," Reuters reported. The commission "warned that low levels of water could affect strategic sectors including agriculture, hydropower, and energy production."

Lorenzo Ciccarese from the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research told the outlet that "there is every reason to fear that this year too there will be numerous and widespread events."

The United Nations warned last year that as a result of planet-heating emissions and land-use change, wildfires are projected to increase 30% by 2050 and 50% by the end of the century.

After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest assessment report this week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is possible, "but it will take a quantum leap in climate action," including a prohibition on greenlighting and financing new coal, oil, and gas projects as well as a phaseout of existing fossil fuel production.

Critics say DeSantis move to expand 'Don't Say Gay' exposes law's true intentions

Florida's Republican governor and presumed 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is moving to expand his state's prohibition on classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity to all grades.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday denounced DeSantis' effort to broaden what critics call the "Don't Say Gay" law, describing it as "completely, utterly wrong."

Passed last year by Florida's GOP-controlled Legislature, the law forbids classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3. The DeSantis administration's proposed rule change, first reported Tuesday by The Orlando Sentinel, would extend the ban on such lessons to grades 4-12, except when they are required by state standards or as part of a reproductive health course from which parents can choose to exclude their children.

The proposal, introduced by DeSantis' Department of Education, goes even further than right-wing Florida lawmakers' current push to expand the law through grade 8 and does not require legislative approval. The state Board of Education—controlled by appointees of DeSantis and his predecessor, U.S. Sen Rick Scott (R-Fla.)—is set to vote on the measure at its April 19 meeting.

"Everything he does is about what can further his own career ambitions," Brandon Wolf of Equality Florida toldThe Associated Press on Wednesday, referring to DeSantis. "And it's clear he sees the anti-LGBTQ movement as his vehicle to get him where he wants to go."

Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law has been widely condemned since it was first introduced last year. Opponents—including President Joe Biden, who called the measure "hateful" — contend that it marginalizes LGBTQ+ people.

DeSantis' proposed expansion has confirmed critics' warnings that the law was never intended to "protect kids," as proponents claimed, but rather to undermine support for LGBTQ+ rights and sow mistrust in public education to facilitate privatization.

"It was never about 'protecting children,'" Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic, wrote Wednesday on social media. "It was always about eliminating LGBTQ people from public life and making it illegal to even discuss our existence."

That message was echoed by former Florida Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-49), who tweeted: "It was never, ever, ever, ever about kindergarten through third grade. It was always about demonizing us and censoring LGBTQ people out of existence in our schools."

During her Wednesday press briefing, Jean-Pierre alluded to growing attacks on LGBTQ+ people and said that DeSantis' proposal reflects "a disturbing and dangerous trend that we're seeing across the country."

Last month, PEN America revealed that GOP officials across the United States unveiled 84 educational gag orders during the first six weeks of 2023.

As the free speech organization previously documented, Republican lawmakers introduced 190 bills designed to restrict the ability of educators and students to discuss the production of and resistance to myriad inequalities throughout U.S. history—including several proposals to create so-called "tip lines" that would enable parents to punish school districts or individual teachers—in dozens of states in 2021 and 2022. Over the past two years, 19 laws limiting the teaching of gender, sexuality, and racism were enacted in more than a dozen GOP-controlled states, plus eight measures imposed without legislation.

This year alone, Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law has spawned at least 27 copycat bills in more than a dozen states, including several measures that would, as DeSantis is now proposing, censor instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity at all grade levels.

Opponents of Florida's law argue that "its language—'classroom instruction,' 'age appropriate,' and 'developmentally appropriate'—is overly broad and subject to interpretation," AP reported. "Consequently, teachers might opt to avoid the subjects entirely for fear of being sued, they say."

In an opinion piece published last year, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent argued that the nationwide surge in restrictive education legislation has "an obvious purpose: to make teachers feel perpetually on thin ice, so they shy away from difficult discussions about our national past rather than risk breaking laws in ways they cannot themselves anticipate."

"But there's another, more pernicious goal driving these bills that might well succeed politically precisely because it remains largely unstated," Sargent continued. "The darker underlying premise here is that these bills are needed in the first place, because subversive elements lurk around every corner in schools, looking to pervert, indoctrinate, or psychologically torture your kids."

The "combination of... vagueness and punitive mechanisms such as rights of action and tip lines" is intentionally designed to promote self-censorship, wrote Sargent. "Precisely because teachers might fear that they can't anticipate how they might run afoul of the law—while also fearing punishment for such transgressions—they might skirt difficult subjects altogether."

He added that "calls for maximal parental choice and control in schools have been used by the right for decades as a smoke screen to sow fears and doubts about public education at its ideological foundations."

National Education Association president Becky Pringle similarly argued last month that DeSantis' attack on a new high school Advanced Placement African-American studies course is part of the far-right's wider anti-democratic assault on public schools and other institutions aimed at improving the common good.

"For DeSantis, blocking AP African-American studies is part of a cheap, cynical, and dangerous political ploy to drive division and chaos into public education debates," Pringle wrote.

"He seeks to distract communities from his real agenda, which is to first whitewash and then dumb down public education as an excuse to privatize it," she added. "His ultimate goal? The destruction of public education, the very foundation of our democracy."

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