- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

Excerpts of recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New England newspapers:

The Providence Journal (R.I.), Aug. 14, 2015

Is there life on other planets?

No scientific evidence has been found, and it’s possible none will ever be found. This hasn’t stopped human beings from dreaming, imagining and speculating what extraterrestrial life forms could look like.

What scientists have confirmed, however, is that there are planets outside our solar system. Nearly 2,000 exoplanets, which orbit stars other than our sun, have been identified. (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s confirmed planet total is currently at 1,030.)

Among them is a rather intriguing exoplanet, just recently announced. Some people are triumphantly calling it the discovery of a second Earth.

Its current working name is Kepler-452b. According to NASA’s July 23 news release, it has “a diameter 60 percent larger than Earth and is considered a super-Earth-size planet.” The planet is only “5 percent farther from its parent star, Kepler-452, than Earth is from the sun,” and its year lasts roughly 385 days.

The star that Kepler-452b orbits is “6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun, has the same temperature, and is 20 percent brighter, with a diameter 10 percent larger.”

What does all this mean?

Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said Kepler-452b could be considered “an older, bigger cousin to Earth.” He believes it’s “awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth.”

“That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise,” according to Mr. Jenkins, “should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”

Moreover, John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said this “exciting result brings us one step closer to finding an Earth 2.0.”

Alas, there’s one huge drawback to this incredible discovery.

Kepler-452b is located 1,400 light years away from Earth. To put this in some perspective, the incredibly fast New Horizons spacecraft (which recently captured some extraordinary photos of Pluto) would take approximately 25.8 million years to reach it.

Will we ever find out if Kepler-452b is Earth 2.0? That’s hard to say. For now, we’re still alone in the universe.




Kennebec Journal (Maine), Aug. 13, 2015

What does a company do when it discovers that the product it sells is harming its customers?

When that happened to the tobacco industry, the answer was deny, deny, deny. Companies hid research that made them look bad and funded industry-friendly science that misled the public and policymakers. It was a good strategy to maintain short-term profits, but a disastrous one for smokers’ health.

Now we are seeing the soft drink industry take a page out of the tobacco companies’ playbook.

Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest soft drink manufacturer, is funding scientists who are willing to shift blame for the obesity epidemic from diet and nutrition to a lack of exercise. The Coca-Cola-supported Global Energy Balance Network will publish studies that tell people to exercise more and stop worrying about how much they eat.

This looks like another case of an industry putting profits above the public welfare, and Americans should be very skeptical about any “science” this effort produces.

A national obesity crisis is drawing attention to the beverages that pour hundreds of empty calories into the super-sized bodies of children and adults. Based on scientific research, public health authorities have been issuing warnings about the danger the drinks pose, which include tooth decay, heart disease and type 2 diabetes as well as other chronic conditions.

The campaign is working, and soda sales are in the 10th year of a decline.

Now the industry wants to turn the trend around by producing its own science. Their argument is technically correct: Weight loss and gain are partly a function of the balance between calories consumed and calories burned. But it’s misleading to claim that overconsumption can be remedied with a few extra laps in the park.

One 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola contains 65 grams of sugar. An active person who drank two of them in a single day would exceed the World Health Organization’s recommendation of less than 100 grams of sugar per day - and that’s if they didn’t eat or drink anything else that contained added sugar. It would be difficult to make up the difference with exercise alone.

An overweight person could burn 350 calories by running or swimming for half an hour, but many people who need to lose weight couldn’t maintain a steady pace of a strenuous activity that long, and most people would find it difficult to exercise that much every single day of their lives.

So, while exercise is important, it’s much easier to reach and maintain a healthy weight when you take control of the kinds of foods you take in, and it’s nearly impossible to make up for a very bad diet with exercise alone.

The soft drink companies make the claim that their products can be part of a healthy diet. That’s disingenuous.

What they are really saying is that if you are careful you can maintain a healthy diet in spite of drinking some sugary soft drinks. Your body does not need you to consume any added sugar. Your overall diet may be healthy even if you drink a soda now and then, but these sugars are not the “healthy” part of a “healthy diet.”

Clearly, the industry would prefer to put the blame for obesity on their customers’ habits, deflecting criticism from the product that they are selling so aggressively. These products are hurting people and the companies know it, no matter what their scientists dig up.




Concord Monitor (N.H.), Aug. 13, 2015

Oceans are great insulators. They moderate the weather, reducing extremes of heat and cold, and they are a barrier to invaders. The Atlantic and Pacific have largely protected Americans from the nonstop arrival of thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing war and persecution and economic migrants, residents of impoverished lands whose people have run out of hope. But what happens when the ocean itself becomes the invader?

There are, by United Nations estimates, currently about 60 million people, or one in every 122 people on Earth, who have been displaced from their homeland. The burden of coping with them has fallen to the nations of the European Union and to countries such as Turkey and Pakistan that are themselves poor. The migration crisis has created dissension, argument and a moral quandary not easily resolved.

Glaciers are melting and seas are rising faster than scientists predicted just a few years ago.

James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist who more than anyone fought to have the threat of climate change taken seriously, recently warned that sea levels are increasing 10 times faster than predicted. By the time a kindergartner signs up for Social Security, sea levels could be 10 feet higher; cities like Miami, Washington, D.C., Boston and Portsmouth submerged. Globally, the International Panel on Climate Change estimates up to a billion people could be displaced.

Both fates, at least the worst aspects of them, could likely be avoided by quick and reasonably unified action. A high tax on carbon emissions adopted by polluting nations like the United States, India and China, Hansen says, could significantly slow temperature rise. Actions to combat the conditions that force people from their homes - unemployment, poverty, famine and strife - would slow the outflow of the desperate.

The United States has a responsibility to act on both fronts. Until fairly recently, it was the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Despite its culpability, the nation has been slow to combat climate change. Most progress made in recent years has been by presidential rather than congressional action. Congressional Republicans, and a good many Republican governors, continue to sink anchors deep into the polluting past. By doing so, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon, they are threatening national security.

Many of the nation’s military bases, including the Virginia bases that are home to the heart of the Navy, are already coping with coastal flooding. A few feet more of sea level rise and they’ll be under water. Same with the Air Force bases in Florida. Other bases are threatened by drought, water shortages and wildfires, all thought related to climate change.

The United States, which has watched from afar as overloaded boats of refugees sink en route to Italy or Greece, has urged Europe to do more. But as with the flow of migrants north through Mexico from Central American nations, part of the blame for the situation lies with us. The war in Iraq and American support for efforts to topple dictators in Libya and Syria have, while well-intended, contributed to the refugee crisis. America’s appetite for illegal drugs and its efforts to overthrow some Central American governments and support others inadvertently contributed to conditions that fuel the exodus. To reduce the security risks created by global warming and stem the flow of migrants, the United States must act to reduce carbon emissions and improve economic conditions in impoverished countries.




The Bristol Press (Conn.), Aug. 14, 2015

Seventy years ago on Friday, Americans learned that Japan had surrendered, thus ending World War II. It came only days after the United States had dropped the atomic bomb, first, on Aug. 6, on Hiroshima and then, on Aug. 9, on Nagasaki.

To this day, the anniversary carries special meaning to a group of veterans and their families who, in partnership with the Iwo Jima Memorial Historical Foundation and the Newington Memorial Funeral Home, will host a V-J Candlelight Ceremony of Remembrance at the memorial on Ella Grasso Boulevard in Newington tonight. They will honor the 100 Connecticut servicemen who were killed in action during the Battle of Iwo Jima, as well as all of America’s veterans “who have since passed away, including those who were KIA/MIA/POW.”

Seventy years is a long time to remember, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pointed out Friday. He noted that more than 80 percent of his country’s population was born after the war - and certainly the numbers are similar here in the United States. But that doesn’t change the history of suffering, both here and overseas, that preceded that August day. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 took the lives of 2,400 members of the United States military and destroyed our country’s sense of security. Life in the United States forever changed after that morning.

Even before that, atrocities by the Japanese Imperial Army before and during the war left East Asia devastated.

Abe acknowledged that Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” on “innocent people” but added that “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war.”

The BBC observed, “Mr. Abe walked a careful line, maintaining previous apologies, but also saying future generations should not have to go on apologizing endlessly.”

“We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”

It was not what Japan’s neighbors wanted to hear. And that got us to thinking: when is it time to let go of old enmities?

It is important to grieve; it is important to remember and to honor those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom; and certainly, it is important to learn from the past. But when do we let go of the anger?

We have fought wars against the British - now, arguably, our nation’s best friend. We have fought against the Germans and the Italians and today they are our trusted allies in NATO. And we helped rebuild post-war Japan, even committing ourselves to the island’s security.

Abe has said that Japan must never repeat the devastation caused by his country in those years. And, we’d add, never forget it.

But, he added, “History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone.”

Those who gather today at the Iwo Jima Memorial, remembering World War II - and all of America’s other wars - can testify to that.




The Times Argus (Vt.), Aug. 15, 2015

As U.S. Marines raised the American flag at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont was looking on. Leahy had been among the important players behind the scenes taking steps along the road to renewed diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba.

A lengthy article in The New York Times traces the course of the Cuban story from the early days of the Obama administration in 2009 to the culmination Friday when Secretary of State John Kerry presided over the raising of the American flag. In the years leading up to the diplomatic breakthrough, Leahy was involved in secret communications leading to an exchange of prisoners and back-channel communications with Pope Francis, all of which were prelude to diplomatic recognition.

When he was elected, Obama was determined to do something to break free of a policy in place since 1960, when the U.S. broke off relations with Cuba. As he has done with Iran, Obama has sought to build trust and leave ancient animosities in the past. But years of mistrust on both sides had prevented either from taking positive steps.

Leahy’s involvement centered around Alan Gross, an American contractor working for the U.S. government who was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for distributing communications equipment to the Cuban people. Gross’s health was in danger - he had threatened suicide - and Leahy was convinced that if nothing was done to bring him home, he would die a prisoner in Cuba.

The U.S. had five Cuban prisoners who had been convicted as spies, and the two sides were considering the possibility of a prisoner swap. U.S. officials believed it was not right to trade five convicted spies for one man who had been arrested illegally. But Gross’s life was on the line.

An unusual trust-building measure involved one of the five Cuban prisoners. The wife of Gerardo Hernandez, Adriana Perez, was desperate to have a child with her imprisoned husband, and she tearfully pressed her case with Leahy’s wife, Marcelle, hoping she could help make it happen. As it happened, Leahy and his aides arranged the transport of Hernandez’s sperm from the U.S. to Panama where Perez became impregnated through artificial insemination.

After Obama won a second term, he was determined to press ahead on Cuba. Two White House aides, bypassing the State Department, carried out secret negotiations with Cuban officials in Ottawa. Sen. Richard Durbin suggested that Obama enlist the help of Pope Francis. To that end, Leahy sent a letter to Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Cuba to raise the issue with the pope. Ortega became a go-between in communications between the pope and Obama.

An agreement was reached to release the five Cuban prisoners when U.S. officials determined they could release them in exchange for another prisoner held in Cuba who had been arrested as a spy. That way Gross would be released on humanitarian grounds.

During the long process of trust-building, Leahy had met with Cuban President Raoul Castro. Photographs of grandchildren became a humanizing connection between the two of them.

When the Cubans released a hobbling Alan Gross, Leahy was there in Havana to take him home. And Friday he was back in Havana to watch the ceremonies at the Embassy.

The Cuban breakthrough is one of Obama’s notable diplomatic successes, and it presages another historic breakthrough - the nuclear agreement with Iran. In both cases the U.S. had remained locked in a posture of hostility with a nation it can afford to be at peace with. The background of the breakthrough with Iran is also a story involving the struggle of individuals seeking to break through decades of mistrust.

In Leahy’s long career - he was first elected to the Senate in 1974 - the recognition of Cuba and his involvement in making it happen stands out as one of the achievements of which he is most proud. Recognition does not transform Cuba into a flourishing democracy. But it casts off the shackles of history and creates the opportunity for change.




The Greenfield Recorder (Mass.), Aug. 14, 2015

The recent attempt in the United States Senate to defund Planned Parenthood, failing though it did, is likely to be just a pause in the action. The fight over abortion, it seems, will never end.

While the battle lines in the ongoing fight over a legal medical procedure remain largely unchanged, citizens and their political leaders must distinguish objective facts from political manipulation in messages coming from those opposing, or supporting, abortion rights.

The latest explosion over Planned Parenthood was fueled by videos taken surreptitiously by a group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress, in which officials with the women’s health organization are shown talking about what happens to fetal tissue following abortions. Taken at face value, these videos seem to show a callous and profit-driven attitude toward terminated pregnancies. They sparked a firestorm of condemnation, inside the U.S. Senate and across the nation.

Without a doubt, the videos show a lack of sensitivity and professionalism, qualities that are vital when discussing the disposition or medical use of fetal tissue. It was appropriate that Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, saw fit to apologize for the tone of the comments recorded.

But that doesn’t justify the dishonesty and distortions involved in making, editing and publicizing the recordings. And, amid the uproar, it’s crucial to remember that Planned Parenthood does far more to prevent unwanted pregnancies than to end them.

Despite its name, the Center for Medical Progress isn’t an organization devoted to advancing health care through the honest use of science and data. Instead, according to its website, it is “a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances.” The website goes on to say, “We are concerned about contemporary bioethical issues that impact human dignity, and we oppose any interventions, procedures, and experiments that exploit the unequal legal status of any class of human beings.” A major focus of the group’s work: opposing abortion.

Secretly recording conversations and editing them with political intent doesn’t meet our definition of journalistic integrity. Nor does suggesting that Planned Parenthood is profiting from fetal tissue donation, when the fact is that it simply covers costs in the fashion allowed by law.

None of the $528 million in government money that goes to Planned Parenthood each year pays for abortion, a procedure the organization says makes up just 3 percent of its services. The vast majority of Planned Parenthood’s work aims at preventing unintended pregnancies through contraception, testing and treating sexually transmitted diseases and screening for cervical and other cancers. All told, the organization serves 2.7 million women and men nationwide.

As for donating fetal tissue, that happens only when a woman planning an abortion consents to it. And even that practice is limited; the organization provides tissue for research from abortions performed in fewer than five states. (Planned Parenthood hasn’t said which, although the videos indicate that Texas and California are two of them, the Wall Street Journal reports.)

Where donations do take place, health care providers follow federal rules established in 1993 when a bipartisan Congress made fetal tissue collection legal. In the two decades since, the tissue has proven invaluable in studying and developing treatments for H.I.V., hepatitis, congenital heart defects, among other health problems.

If American citizens and advocacy groups think this type of research should end, they should lobby government leaders to change the federal rule. If they want to reduce the number of abortions, however, shutting down Planned Parenthood would have the opposite effect given the constructive role it has played in preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Some congressional Republicans are threatening to shut down the government this fall to block money for Planned Parenthood. Voters should let their congressional representatives know that they aren’t falling for such a dangerous political stunt. Too many lives hang in the balance.




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