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The Young Are at the Forefront of a Perilous Global Migration Surge




AUGUSTA, Italy — 

The rescue ship pulled into port ferrying its doleful load — hundreds of men, women and children, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. All had been plucked from ragged vessels adrift in the Mediterranean, where this year more than 1,600 migrants and refugees have been lost at sea.

They had finally reached the continent that had consumed their dreams. But Europe was not welcoming. Hollowed-out stares from the decks fixed on police cars, flashing lights and ambulances on the quay. The migrants shivered in gray blankets as the sun set on the Sicilian coast against a backdrop of moored sea liners and the rusting detritus of forgotten freight.

A rescue boat full of migrants waits to dock in Sicily. Everyone aboard was pulled from wobbly boats in international waters off Libya.
(Liliana Nieto del Río / For The Times)

Many aboard were young people who had embarked on epic odysseys, escaping war zones, poverty and — perhaps most of all — a suffocating dearth of hope and opportunity at home. They had endured a gamut of smugglers, thieves and militiamen who eye them as booty to be bartered for ransom, slave labor, or as cannon fodder for the next holy war.

The World They Inherit

The World They Inherit

This is the ninth in a series of occasional stories about the challenges young people face in an increasingly perilous world. Reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

“I was one of these kids,” said Sano Sankoung, 25, a native of Senegal in West Africa who was among the aid workers helping the newcomers in the Sicilian port of Augusta. It was Sankoung’s first trip back to the docks since a ship dropped him off here almost a decade ago after he was saved from an overloaded rubber raft.

“This was God’s work,” Sankoung said as the youths, including 141 unaccompanied children, stepped off the Sea-Watch 4’s gangplank. “God — and some luck.”


This year saw surging numbers of migrants crashing borders. COVID-19 lockdowns eased against a backdrop of worsening “push factors” — including armed conflict, climate change and a global wealth gap that widened as pandemic-triggered recessions exacerbated inequality. The Ethiopian civil war, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Haitian influx from South America, the political weaponization of migrants along the Belarusian-Polish border — all highlighted the desperation driving people from their homelands.

The young are at the forefront. They are converging on the U.S. border and on multiple entry points to Europe, from the English Channel to the Mediterranean to the continent’s eastern flanks. Many hail from regions with predominantly youthful populations, median ages typically in the low 20s, well below those in Western Europe and the United States.

A record of almost 150,000 unaccompanied minors, more than 75% from Central America, were detained along the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal 2021, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Many more teens and young adults arrived during a period that set an all-time high for overall border apprehensions — nearly 1.7 million.

Europe saw at least 160,000 irregular crossings by migrants and refugees arriving via sea and land during January-October 2021, a 70% jump from the same period in 2020, according to Frontex, the European border control agency. Almost 80% of more than 5.5 million first-time asylum seekers in Europe since 2014 were 34 or younger, according to Eurostat, the statistical branch of the European Union. Close to one-third were under 18.

Their arrivals have met a populist backlash fired up by politicians such as former President Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But the young keep coming, transcending distance and danger in search of better lives in the world they are inheriting.

“In many parts of the world, people have to make choices at the age of 15, 16, 17 about the rest of their lives,” said Andrew Seele, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based research institution. “It’s the age of migration in many societies, whether someone is looking to enter the work force, escape civil wars, or running from being recruited into criminal enterprises.”


Marisa Joseph is an animated 18-year-old camped with multitudes of tent-dwellers on a beach along a stretch of Caribbean in northwest Colombia.

“I’m not scared,” Joseph declares, sitting on a palm log in the coastal town of Necoclí, cradling her 1-year-old son, who has a slight fever — and is in no shape for the slog ahead through the dense forest. “I’m determined to go forward, despite everything.”

Maria Joseph, 18, camps in Colombia with her 1-year-old son. She and her husband are among tens of thousands of Haitians making the trek from South America toward the U.S.
(Liliana Nieto del Río / For The Times)

She, her husband, Wiggins Pierre, 21, and their son, Wiggins Iván, are part of the extraordinary rise in U.S.-bound migrants from Haiti who have been departing South America, sometimes traveling 4,000 miles in an intercontinental trek. They have been driven north by pandemic-battered economies and a crackdown on foreigners.

“We are here out of necessity,” explains Joseph, who hopes to reach relatives in New York and Miami, hubs of the diaspora from Haiti, long among the hemisphere’s poorest nations and most dependent on remittances from abroad. Haitians compose about 75% of the unprecedented 121,000-plus foreigners who have entered Panama so far in 2021 after treacherous hikes through the Darien Gap, the strip of rainforest between Colombia and Panama.

The migrants wait, sometimes for weeks, to catch boats from Necoclí across the Gulf of Urabá and continue their northward trip to the Darien. Joseph and her family shelter in a tent bought from a street-side vendor. It provides scarce protection from the blazing afternoon sun and daily tropical downpours.

She flashes a broad smile and says she would like to go to university in the United States, perhaps to study acting: “I took a course in Chile,” she says, “but I never made it on television or anything like that.”

Joseph and her husband, who wants to enlist in the U.S. military, met in Chile, which took in tens of thousands of Haitians following the Caribbean nation’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake. She worked in a clothing store, her husband in a furniture factory. The couple saw no future in Chile, where they earned the minimum wage of about $400 a month.

“I want my son to have a good education,” said Joseph. “That’s why we are here, risking everything.”

She bides her time on the beach as boats of migrants embark across the gulf and new arrivals seek out vacant plots in this tent city on the crowded strand, where promise and frustration push against the Caribbean tide.


Half a world away, Ali Abbass, 21, is a struggling barber in Baghdad.

He had heard in September that there were easy visas to Belarus, the former Soviet republic that borders the European Union nations of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Abbass, who is single and saw little chance to improve his circumstances in Iraq, mapped out a route and borrowed $2,500 for a trip that would take him through Iran to Turkey and onto the Belarusian city of Brest, near the Polish border.

Things went bad quickly after he landed in Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko was funneling Abbass and thousands of other migrants and refugees toward EU countries in retribution for sanctions against his repressive rule. Before Abbass could even attempt to cross into Poland, Belarusian soldiers grabbed him and took his passport and phone. They detained him for four days, then ferried him away from Brest and dumped him as part of a group near the border with Lithuania.

“There was so much harassment,” he said. “The Belarusian army really hurt us.”

After nine hours of trying to get through the no-man’s land into Lithuanian territory, Abbass gave up.

“I couldn’t make it across. The army was deployed all over,” he said. He turned back toward the Belarusian side, joining thousands of others in a makeshift refugee camp. He was trapped at the edge of a Europe that did not want him. There was no food or drink, and temperatures regularly plunged below freezing. Every time he and others tried to leave for the Belarusian capital of Minsk, soldiers beat them back.

“We ended up drinking from a swamp nearby,” said Abbass, who had survived nearly two decades of war and unrest in Iraq only to find himself facing new dangers. “The whole experience from beginning to end was just suffering.”

He waited a few days and attempted again to enter Lithuania. When he failed, he decided he had enough. He paid what little money he had left for a smuggler to return him to the capital. He had been defeated. When word came that the Iraqi government was offering repatriation flights home, Abbass signed on.

He’s back at the barber shop in Baghdad. His future looks no better — perhaps it’s even worse. He doesn’t know how he’ll pay back the loan he took for his ill-fated trip.

“I knew it was a risk,” he said, “but I didn’t expect it to get to the point of death.”


In Italy, they are sometimes called gli invisibili — the invisible ones, though in truth they are quite apparent.

Young African men can be seen putting up Christmas decorations on posh storefronts in Milan, peddling trinkets outside the Colosseum in Rome, hawking jackets, shoes and knock-off designer bags along the promenade at the Bay of Naples. They pick crops in the fields and provide day labor at construction sites, while women work as nannies and housekeepers.

Many — like those who arrived on the Sea-Watch 4 rescue boat — lack legal status to claim asylum or other forms of relief. They languish.

Migrants wait aboard the Sea-Watch 4 rescue ship in Sicily.
(Liliana Nieto del Río / For The Times)

“It’s very hard to find any work here without papers,” said Yeboah Kwaku Haruna, 21, a Ghanaian man found recently at a Catholic social service office in Castel Volturno, a faded former seaside resort town north of Naples that has become a hub for Africans seeking cheap housing and the relative anonymity of the countryside.

Haruna, who arrived by boat from Libya in June, has been living in a house with other migrants. Perhaps half of Castel Volturno’s estimated population of 40,000 is composed of Africans and their children, many Italian-born. They often face hostility, and their lives at times become entangled in the criminal elements of southern Italy.

Castel Volturno made headlines in 2008 when trigger-men of the Casalesi clan of the Camorra Mafia fatally shot six migrants from Ghana execution-style in a turf struggle between Neapolitan and Nigerian mobs that vie for control of prostitution, drug trafficking and other rackets. None of the victims — aged 19 to 30 — had links to organized crime. They were apparently targeted at random outside an African-run tailor shop in a gruesome message to Nigerian gangsters encroaching on Camorra terrain.

The Italian coast, especially Sicily, is a regular destination for wobbly craft embarking from North Africa. The skiffs routinely founder mid-Mediterranean and the passengers await help, a risky bet in a moment when Europe has hardened border policies. More than 22,000 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since 2014, making it the world’s deadliest migrant passage, according to a United Nations-backed monitor. But the weeks or months preceding departure can be just as perilous.

Libya, the major staging ground, is rife with gangs that kidnap migrants for ransom and forced labor.

“Even my worst enemy, I wouldn’t wish it upon them to embark on this journey,” said Ebrima D. Camara, 21, a native of Gambia in West Africa.

He left home in 2016 at age 16, setting off by himself — he never told his family — with the intention of traversing the Sahara and catching a boat to Europe. He wanted to study. Back home, he said, his father had discouraged schooling, putting his son to work on the family plot of cassava, oranges and mangoes.

Upon arriving in southern Libya, Camara said, he was kidnapped and jailed. He was obliged to work as a slave when he pleaded that his parents had no money for ransom.

Ebrima D. Camara, 21, migrated from Gambia and now lives in a Catholic shelter in Catania, Italy, after a harrowing journey through Libya.
(Ebrima D. Camara)

“They say, ‘OK, you will die here,’” Camara recalled, speaking in English at a Roman Catholic shelter in the Sicilian city of Catania, where the municipal cemetery has a monument to more than 200 unidentified migrants buried there after perishing at sea. “They put a gun to your head. … I saw them beating some people mercilessly. … If you kill somebody in front of me, the first time, I will be terrified. The next day, if you kill someone in front of me, I will terrified again — but not the same as the first time. As time goes on, it becomes normal.”

He worked for a Libyan family as a sheep herder and befriended them, learning basic Arabic. These “good people” helped him escape. He scraped enough dinars together for the boat passage.

“Either I go or I die,” he calculated.

Camara arrived in Italy more than a year after he had left home. He was 17 and traumatized. He couldn’t sleep for three months. He shunned company.

“I thought I was crazy.”

Counselors in Sicily helped him recover. Today, he speaks fluent Italian, has legal residency and is completing his high school equivalency. In 2018, as part of a Catholic youth group that met Pope Francis, he took a selfie with the pontiff.


Sankoung, the aid worker in Sicily, is a soft-spoken young man who passed through a number of Italian shelters and foster homes as a child and now resides in a top-floor studio flat across the street from the soccer stadium in the Sicilian city of Siracusa.

He says he left Senegal in 2011 at age 13, an orphan. His parents, he said, were killed in his native southern region of Casamance, site of one of Africa’s most enduring, if least known, conflicts. He decamped alone in search of an older brother, his only sibling. He followed his brother’s trail toward Libya, once a stable destination under the dictatorship of Moammar Kadafi, who had declared himself Africa’s “King of Kings” and welcomed migrants from the south.

Sano Sankoung, 25, left his native Senegal as a 13-year-old orphan and reached Europe after departing Libya from an inflatable boat.

En route to Libya, Sankoung earned his keep cleaning buses in Mali but he was waylaid in Niger and forced to work in adobe construction. He finally made it to Libya in the chaotic aftermath of the insurrection against Kadafi. Sankoung joined the many Africans hastening for boats to Europe.

He boarded a rubber dinghy outside Tripoli that heaved with 114 people. Smugglers were beating passengers and cramming them into the vessel, as waves crashed at the shore, he recalled. In the chaos of the predawn darkness, Sankoung said, one young African man fell into the sea and drowned.

“I don’t know if we are going to make it,” Sankoung recalled thinking.

On the third day at sea, he said, the motor failed. The boat was adrift. Some around him fell ill from drinking seawater.

“We were in the hands of the wind,” he said.

After a day and night, a Spanish tanker stopped and took the migrants aboard. The ship docked here at Augusta — the same port where, nine years later, Sankoung would witness the arrival of the latest batch of rescued migrants, many, like him years back, teenagers with no idea of what would come.

At the pier in Augusta last month, a steady stream of young men exited the Sea-Watch 4 rescue ship, which had taken aboard almost 500 people from international waters off the Libyan coast. First off was an African man with twin 1-year-old sons.

Next were the 141 unaccompanied minors met by Red Cross workers and Italian officials in the gusty Sicilian evening. Many of the youths were barefoot. Mylar space blankets draped across their shoulders glistened a surreal golden hue as the vessel’s blinding strobe lights illuminated the post-dusk spectacle.

Migrants rescued from faltering boats in the Mediterranean aboard Sea-Watch 4 rescue ship at harbor in Augusta, Sicily.
(Liliana Nieto del Río / For The Times)

“I saw myself,” said Sankoung, standing on the quay.

Since his arrival, Sankoung has won Italian residency, learned the language and is studying biotechnology. He works at a residence for some 70 migrants, guiding them through the bureaucratic labyrinth. He never learned the fate of his brother.

“I have heard this phrase, that we are ‘the invisible,’” says Sankoung, speaking Italian. “Some people have been here for 30 years and [Italians] still treat them like they arrived yesterday. … There is some badness here, yes, but in the end you have to understand that that, too, is part of humanity. And you have to avoid becoming a bad person yourself.”

All on board the Sea-Watch 4 had indeed made it to Europe, that long-imagined land with no famine or slave traders. But the continent held its own peril — a pivot between promise and adversity as daunting in some ways as setting off in an inflatable dinghy into the immensity of the Mediterranean.

Much of the task of rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean has fallen to humanitarian groups such as Sea Watch, a nonprofit organization based in Berlin.
(Liliana Nieto del Río / For The Times)

This is the ninth in a series of occasional stories about the challenges young people face in an increasingly perilous world. Reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

Times staff writers McDonnell reported from Augusta, Italy, and Necoclí, Colombia, and Bulos from Beirut. Special correspondents Liliana Nieto del Río in Necoclí and Augusta, Alessandro Puglia in Augusta, Juan Carlos Zapata in Necoclí and Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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The Senate Has a Climate Deal. Now Comes the Hard Part




After decades of inaction on the climate crisis, the federal government is on the verge of enacting a sweeping plan to slash planet-warming pollution, with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema agreeing late Thursday to support the bill.

Now comes the hard part — or at least, the next hard part.

Phasing out coal, oil and natural gas — the fossil fuels largely responsible for the climate crisis — will require building huge amounts of clean energy infrastructure, including solar farms, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and electric power lines. The Senate bill sets aside nearly $370 billion to support those technologies and others that could help reduce carbon emissions.

But finding good spots to put all those renewable energy projects — and contending with opposition from nearby landowners, Native American tribes and even environmental activists — could be just as challenging as getting a bill through Congress.

Across the country, local opposition has slowed or blocked many renewable energy facilities. And land-use conflicts are likely to intensify. Princeton University researchers estimate that zeroing out U.S. carbon emissions by 2050 could require installing solar panels and wind turbines across more than 225,000 square miles, an area much bigger than California.

“There’s this misperception that there’s plenty of land,” said Eric O’Shaughnessy, a renewable energy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “That is true, but [solar and wind farms] have to go in specific places.”

The Senate deal, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, should accelerate America’s renewable energy buildout. It was the product of months of negotiations between Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), and it needs support from all 50 Senate Democrats to overcome unified Republican opposition.

Sinema, the final holdout, now says she’ll “move forward” with the bill once it overcomes a final procedural hurdle.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) outside the Capitol in May.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The bill would extend and expand tax credits for companies to build and buy climate-friendly technologies, from solar and wind power to energy storage and carbon capture. Other provisions include $4,000 tax credits for buying used electric cars and rebates for homes that replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps. The bill would establish a “green bank” with a $27-billion budget, force oil and gas companies to pay fees as high as $1,500 a ton on methane leaks and pay farmers to change their practices.

Senate Democrats say it would help cut U.S. carbon emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, assuming it passes the Senate and House and is signed by President Biden. Independent analyses support that claim. Rhodium Group estimates emissions would fall 31% to 44%, compared to 24% to 35% under current policy. The research firm Energy Innovation offered a similar projection.

Those would be big cuts — but not enough to meet U.S. climate targets. President Biden pledged to slash emissions at least 50% by 2030. Steeper reductions will be needed over the following decades to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

That won’t be easy. And if policymakers fail to grapple with local opposition to solar and wind power, it might not be possible.

Two recent studies help explain the sources of that opposition — and what might be done to alleviate local concerns.


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The first study, from researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explored 53 renewable energy projects that were delayed or blocked over more than a decade. It found the most common sources of opposition were concerns about environmental impacts and land use.

California and neighboring states have seen both types of conflicts.

Some conservation groups have tried to block solar and wind farms in the Mojave Desert, citing potential harm to animals and plants such as desert tortoises, golden eagles and Joshua trees. Just this month, Ormat Technologies Inc. paused construction of a geothermal project in Nevada while federal wildlife officials study whether it would harm the endangered Dixie Valley toad.

Then there’s San Bernardino County — California’s largest by land area. Three years ago, it banned solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres, spurred by locals who worried the sprawling projects would industrialize their rural communities.

A solar farm in California’s Kern County.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Some clean energy advocates consider that type of opposition NIMBYism at best and thinly veiled climate denial at worst.

But Lawrence Susskind, an urban planning professor and the MIT study’s lead author, said local concerns of all kinds need to be taken seriously. His research has convinced him that speeding up the clean energy transition will be possible only if developers slow down and make a good-faith effort to gather input from communities before dumping solar and wind farms on them.

Too often, Susskind said, companies exclude local residents until the last minute, then try to steamroll opposition — to their own detriment. His study cited 20 projects that were ultimately blocked, some by lawsuits or other forms of public resistance.

“If you want to build something, you go slow to go fast,” he said. “You have a conversation, not a confrontation.”

That was the thinking behind the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an ambitious government effort to map which parts of the California desert are suitable for solar and wind farms and which parts should be protected. The plan took eight years to complete and covered more than 10 million acres — and barely survived a Trump administration attempt to scrap it.

Renewable energy companies criticized the maps as too restrictive. But they didn’t take their complaints to court, and so far the desert plan seems to be standing the test of time. The Biden administration recently approved its third clean energy facility under the plan — a 500-megawatt solar plant, with 200 megawatts of battery storage, off Interstate 10 in Riverside County.

An 11th-hour Trump administration proposal foreshadows a tough balancing act for Biden on public lands.

Stanford University researchers hope to facilitate similar compromises for the rest of the country.

Stanford’s Dan Reicher told The Times he’s convened more than 20 groups and companies — representing the solar industry, environmental advocates, Native American tribes, the agriculture industry and local governments — in an “uncommon dialogue” to discuss land-use conflicts involving large solar farms. It’s modeled after a similar dialogue that Reicher convened for the hydropower industry and conservation groups, which led to an unprecedent agreement between those long-warring factions.

Reicher hopes the solar discussions will lead to companies to make smarter decisions about where to build projects — and do a better job communicating with local residents and conservationists when they think they’ve found good locations.

“Done well, siting is a highly technical process that also lends itself to significant input,” Reicher said.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Pine Tree Wind and Solar Farm in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

O’Shaughnessy agrees on the need for public engagement up front.

The Lawrence Berkeley researcher was lead author of the second recent study, which found that solar and wind farms typically get built in rural areas with low incomes — and those projects can be either a benefit or a burden to those communities, depending on local factors. Construction jobs and tax revenues can be a boon, while loss of agricultural land can be a big loss.

Renewable energy facilities can also destroy land held sacred by Native American tribes or disrupt treasured views.

The visual impacts of renewable energy could be one of the biggest roadblocks to fighting climate change.

The potential harms from solar and wind energy pale in comparison to the dangers of oil and gas drilling and other fossil fuel projects, which unlike renewable energy can expose nearby residents to cancer-linked chemicals and other toxins. The low-income communities of color that have born the brunt of fossil fuel pollution are also especially vulnerable to climate change consequences.

But taking steps to make sure solar and wind farms in vulnerable communities don’t worsen ongoing injustices is important, O’Shaughnessy said. And it’s a priority for the Biden administration, which has set a goal of delivering 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged neighborhoods — an initiative known as Justice40.

“There will be projects that move forward despite some degree of local opposition. That’s inevitable,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It comes back to making sure there are participation processes in place to do this as fairly and equitably as possible.”

They key question is whether enough clean energy can still be built fast enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Susskind, the MIT researcher, thinks it’s doable. He said renewable energy companies should be willing to redesign their projects to avoid sensitive lands and to offer financial compensation to people or businesses who feel they’re still being harmed.

“More stuff would get built faster,” he said.

The Solar Energy Industries Assn., an influential national trade group, agrees with that assessment.

Ben Norris, the group’s director of environmental policy, said in an interview that engaging with communities early — and giving them a real opportunity to be heard — is “the hallmark of good project development.” He said it’s an area where the solar industry is working to improve, in part through the Stanford initiative — and the Senate deal makes it more important than ever.

“This is such a historic opportunity that we’re on the cusp of that we need to get it right,” Norris said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) discusses the Inflation Reduction Act at a news conference.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Not everything in the Senate bill has been embraced by climate activists.

To win Manchin’s support, Schumer included provisions that require continued oil and gas leasing on public lands and offshore, which activists have been fighting to shut down for years. Democratic leaders also agreed to support legislation designed to speed up permitting for all kinds of energy projects — including climate-disrupting natural gas pipelines and gas export terminals.

Sempra Energy is seeking federal approval for a new proposal to ship fossil fuel overseas.

As far as Energy Innovation is concerned, the bill’s benefits far outweigh its harms. The research firm estimates that for every ton of carbon pollution caused by the fossil fuel leasing mandates, 24 tons of carbon would be avoided by other provisions.

Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, also thinks the tradeoffs are worthwhile. The best way to cut down on oil and gas production, he said, is to reduce demand for the fuels — and the Senate bill does that.

The separate permitting bill could also be helpful, Gerrard said, because it could streamline approval of clean energy projects.

“Local opposition has emerged as one of the major inhibitors of [solar and wind farms],” Gerrard said. “Trying to clear away those obstacles is extremely important, even if it is at the price of making it somewhat harder to fight new fossil projects.”

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Gerrard pointed to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a possible model for speeding solar and wind development. The law prevented local governments from banning cell towers and required them to approve or reject towers within a few months.

It also prohibited local governments from rejecting cell towers because they emit electromagnetic fields, or EMFs — a type of radiation that has spurred fears of cancer and other health problems, despite a lack of strong evidence to support those fears. Gerrard thinks similar rules could be helpful for solar and wind projects dogged by misinformation over alleged health effects.

“Whether it’s wind farms or vaccines or elections, people don’t always listen to evidence,” he said.

“Going to communities early and trying to engage them — it’s helpful,” he added. “But it’s not a guaranteed silver bullet.”

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Possible Pelosi Visit Elicits Shrugs in Taiwan, Long the Focal Point of Geopolitical Standoff




TAIPEI, Taiwan — 

On the top of Iris Hsueh’s list of concerns living in Taipei are COVID-19 restrictions, electricity prices and, if she’s being honest, the latest news on Taiwanese pop stars. Nowhere on that list is the proposed visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and the potential Chinese backlash.

“Whether she comes or not won’t really change” anything, the 37-year-old saleswoman speculated. “I think China will think it’s a provocation, but I also don’t think they will escalate any actual military behavior because of this.”

Asked how her circle of friends feels about the standoff, which has prompted the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier group to the Taiwan Strait and China to conduct live fire military drills Saturday, Hsueh said matter-of-factly, “I don’t think they really care.”

As tensions flare between the two superpowers — risking the worst crisis in the region in a quarter of a century — people in Taiwan appear by and large to be responding with a collective shrug, occupying their attention with things like the summer heat wave and local elections rather than the specter of war.

Such is life on the self-governed island of 23 million that has long served as the focal point of an explosive geopolitical standoff. The threat of Chinese military action has loomed for so long that few seem to raise an eyebrow when Beijing lashes out, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping did Thursday in warning President Biden on a call that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi departed for Asia on Friday.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

While the invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns around the globe about a possible Chinese assault, many in Taiwan still view Beijing’s bellicose threats as largely bluster.

“The Chinese Communist Party is playing the same old tricks,” said Yisuo Tzeng, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. “They’re making a fuss about nothing.”

Pelosi, a frequent critic of China’s human rights abuses, left for Asia on Friday. Her itinerary includes U.S. ally countries Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. As of Saturday morning, no plans were revealed about stopping in Taiwan. Biden said the Pentagon advised against her visit.

The rancor over the trip underscores how badly the U.S.-China relationship has soured in recent years and how firmly Taiwan remains its most dangerous flashpoint. Pelosi wouldn’t be the first House speaker to visit the democratically-ruled island; Republican Newt Gingrich made the trip in 1997. But China under Xi is a much more powerful and assertive country than it was back then, and it’s determined to dominate Asia in a way befitting of a great power.

Standing immediately in its way is Taiwan, a teardrop-shaped island roughly the size of Maryland located less than 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.

Formerly known as Formosa, the island was taken over by the fleeing Chinese Nationalist government after it was defeated by the communists in 1949, in the Chinese civil war.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more Taiwanese say they are willing to fight if attacked by China. But without firearms or sufficient military training, many wonder how to prepare.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and after urging peaceful unification for years, has warned it will take the island by force if necessary — particularly if Taiwan formally declares independence.

Washington switched diplomatic relations to Communist China in 1979, adopting a “one China” policy that acknowledges Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, but doesn’t endorse it. To deter China from invading, the U.S. provides Taiwan with defensive weapons and maintains a policy called strategic ambiguity designed to leave China guessing as to whether American troops will defend the island if it is attacked.

While that approach has fostered a peaceful status quo for more than four decades, it has grown more fraught with the elevation of Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Xi has hitched Taiwan to his grand project of national rejuvenation, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last year with a speech that described unification as “a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.”

Much of China’s military planning and modernization is geared toward an invasion of the island. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has tripled the number of sorties it’s flown around Taiwan the first half of this year compared with the same period a year ago, a tactic aimed at prodding and exhausting the territory’s air defenses.

Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

In June, Beijing said the sea separating China from Taiwan, known as the Taiwan Strait, did not qualify as international waters, claiming sovereignty over the waterway and challenging the U.S. Navy’s presence there.

Beijing has also accused the U.S. of blurring its “one China” policy when Cabinet officials and Congress members visit Taiwan with growing frequency. On three occasions Biden has made remarks suggesting the U.S. had discarded strategic ambiguity by pledging to defend Taiwan with force, but the administration has walked back the comments each time.

The tension between the nations with the world’s two largest economies shows few signs of abating. Xi will be less constrained after the 20th Party Congress later this year when he’s expected to secure his third five-year term, the first Chinese leader to do so since Deng Xiaoping imposed two-term limits in 1982. Biden’s ability to maneuver is also limited by the bipartisan enmity for China, one of the few issues rival lawmakers agree on in an otherwise severely polarized political climate. The call between the two leaders Thursday offered no offramps.

Caught in the cycle of escalation is Taiwan, whose voice is often drowned out by the din of Washington and Beijing. The government led by President Tsai Ing-wen has said little about a Pelosi visit — even as analysts say her appearance provides no concrete benefit to the territory and may be more trouble than it’s worth.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. makes chips for iPhones, video game consoles and fighter jets. Now it’s being forced to choose sides.

“Taiwan’s agency in the U.S.-PRC-Taiwan triangle has varied over time, but at this moment, the drivers are the U.S. and China,” said Shelley Rigger, a leading Taiwan expert at Davidson College, using the initialism for the People’s Republic of China. “Taiwan is stuck in the middle.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the Taiwanese government is in a position to speak frankly with U.S. officials,” Rigger continued. “The U.S. is Taiwan’s primary defender, and U.S. officials have shown a lot of ego and arrogance in the relationship. Offending American leaders by pointing out the downside of their decisions is not something Taiwanese officials are really in a position to do.”

Taiwan generally views visits by high-level U.S. officials and politicians as a political boost for the ruling party and a show of much-needed international support. Beijing has diplomatically isolated Taiwan to the point where it’s recognized by just over a dozen mostly small nations. China also thwarted Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Organization assembly during the pandemic.

A Pelosi visit “would definitely encourage the people of Taiwan, basically saying that ‘you are not alone,’” said Chen Kuan-ting, chief executive of Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a think tank politically aligned with the governing Democratic Progressive Party.

That’s important because since Russia invaded Ukraine, confidence in Washington’s willingness to send troops to defend Taiwan in an invasion scenario has waned. A survey conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation showed a 30% decline between last October and March in the number of respondents who believe the U.S. will come to the island’s aid.

Many in Taiwan say Pelosi can’t afford to back down, worrying another cancellation (she initially postponed a trip to the territory in April after testing positive for COVID-19) will send a signal to Beijing it can coerce and intimidate Washington.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has urged her country to better prepare for an invasion.
(Shioro Lee / Associated Press)

“Taiwan is a democratic country. We have the right to welcome any friend who supports” us, said Freddy Lim, a pro-independence legislator who met with Pelosi in Washington in June and urged her to visit Taiwan.

Beijing, which views a visit by Pelosi as a challenge to its sovereignty over Taiwan, said it would respond forcefully to her arrival. Analysts say China could place sanctions on the U.S. lawmaker, test missiles, or in the most provocative scenario, scramble fighters to try to turn her aircraft around. Doing nothing would make China’s leadership look weak, a problem China faces after threatening Taiwan for years.

“To have the same effect of cowing the Taiwan population, Beijing is forced to be more threatening,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. “This cycle may continue until Beijing either has to follow through with its threats or its bluff is called.”

The last time tensions were this high in the region was in 1995, when then-President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan sparked a furor in Beijing by visiting the U.S., breaking diplomatic protocol. China, which also wanted to send a warning to pro-independence groups before upcoming Taiwan elections, responded by conducting a series of missile tests in the waters off the island. The standoff ended when the Clinton administration deployed more warships to the Taiwan Strait than had been assembled since the Vietnam War.

Many in Taiwan don’t expect the same muscular U.S. response — not when China’s military has advanced enough to inflict massive harm to the U.S. Navy.

But in a country where air raid sirens and military drills are a regular occurrence, few seemed fazed by the latest crisis.

“Pelosi’s visit will add to the intensity of [Beijing’s] diplomatic remarks,” said Su Liu Di-Sheng, a 23-year-old graduate student in political science at National Taiwan University. “But the military risk has always been high.”

Yang reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Pierson from Singapore.

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Podcast: to Be Queer in Singapore




Just this year, Singapore’s top court upheld section 377A. That’s a British colonial-era law prohibiting consenting sex between men. And while the government says it doesn’t strictly enforce that law, anyone who breaks it could face up to two years behind bars.

Meanwhile, thousands of Queer Singaporean activists and LGBTQ allies will gather in Hong Lim Park this weekend for an annual gay pride event — and send a clear message to lawmakers that they’re done being denied their basic human rights.

Read the full transcript here.

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