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The Climate Crisis Gets Political

 February 19, 2021 at 9:40 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:01 Rigid cold grips. Most of the country here in San Diego, one of the driest Februarys on record, extreme climate, and what to do about it becomes the latest political battle line. San Diego was supposed to step up COVID-19 enforcement, but the data shows that didn't happen. Why did the city let public health violators off the hook? And Americans are drowning in student loan debt, our local students reacting to a progressive push for a clean slate. I'm Mark Sauer, the KPBS round table. Speaker 2: 00:31 No, [inaudible] Speaker 1: 00:42 Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Mark Sauer and joining me on this remote edition of the KPBS round table today, Gary Robbins, who covers science and technology for the San Diego union Tribune. Jesse Marks associate editor at voice of San Diego and Kaitlin wind of the San Diego state daily Aztec extreme weather. This week is drawing even bigger headlines than the pandemic wide swaths of the country from South to the Midwest and beyond are suffering from record cold, snow and ice in San Diego and throughout California. Meanwhile, we're still pining for rain here to explain as Gary Robbins, who covers science and technology for the San Diego union Tribune. Gary, welcome Speaker 3: 01:22 Back. Oh, thank you, Mark. Well, the big Speaker 1: 01:24 News has been the big freeze elsewhere in the country. We'll get to that in a minute, but let's start locally. We know it's been dry, but you wrote this week that San Diego is on pace to have one of the driest Februarys in 170 years. How dry is it? And what's keeping the storms away. Speaker 3: 01:38 So, so far we've only had a one 10th of an inch of rain during the entire month of February. And it appears like we're not going to get anything through at least February 27th. There's an outside chance that we might get something on the 28th, but that's just not clear. The primary reason is that there's high pressure that is blocking the storms from dropping down the Southern California coast. Speaker 1: 02:01 And can we expect a significant shift in the weather pattern come March a March miracle, perhaps, Speaker 3: 02:06 You know, that is entirely a possibility because that's the way things have worked out. Historically. We've, we've had so many years where we got to the end of February and we had very little rain and then we've had these March miracles. We've also had years where we had, um, you know, lots of rain in January and February, but it didn't match up to what we would normally get in an entire year. And then we got into March and then we had nothing and then April. And so we ended up, um, below average. So it's impossible to forecast that far out. You know, we could have something on the last day of this month that saves us a little bit, but it doesn't look like it. Uh, but we certainly could have some, uh, real heavy storms in the month of March Speaker 1: 02:45 4 million residents earlier in the week were out of power in Texas. And of course, like everything else, these days that's become politicized. The Republicans are saying a certain thing causes it. Let's talk about windmills. And then others are saying, this is the oil and gas state. Hold on a second. Let's look where our power is coming from. Sort that all out for us, if you can. Speaker 3: 03:03 Well, this is incredibly political. And I think back to the last debate, the last presidential debate, when late in the debate, president, the person who would become president Biden, Joe Biden said that he really wanted to do away with fossil fuels within some specific creative period of time. And people in Texas got very angry about that because there's so much employment in gas, natural gas and gas in that state. They're very heavily dependent on that. So when this storm came and power got knocked out to so many people, a lot of people, mostly conservative said, well, look at the wind turbines. You know, they froze and stopped working and newer problems with, um, solar energy. But the reality is that the problems began before the storm ever got into town. The people that operate the independent great in the state of Texas, which covers 90% of Texas, they did not accurately forecast how much energy was going to be needed by the people of Texas going into this, uh, in a series of storms, they were way off in Texas, uh, solar power and wind turbines account for approximately 11%, 10, 11%. Speaker 3: 04:07 So they're the smallest portion of the energy budget in Texas. Um, the rest of it is mostly gas. So when people say, well, you know, the turbines froze, uh, Oh, woe is us. They're pointing to the smallest source of energy rather than pointing back to the grid. And then they had things like heavy winds and knocked down trees, which fell onto power lines, which took down electricity. So some of the reasons that the electrical units went out really didn't have anything to do with the turbines per se. It had to do with the wind and the lack of preparedness and, uh, how that, uh, mushrooms across the state, Speaker 1: 04:45 Right? They have had problems. Uh, uh, winterizing a lot of these systems, there are, you mentioned the turbines, which is a relatively small part of it. And of course, most of it is, is gas. The pipelines. A lot of it just, just froze up. Now we've got Texas Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz, Lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, and attorney general, Ken Paxton, they're all quick to blame Democrats. They're talking about the green new deal. You mentioned that. And all this really comes back to climate change. And in a way, I wonder if there's this cold snap there and a lot of several people have died. It's a deadly thing. If this foretells the big battle in debate, we're going to have over doing something about climate change, the pointing of fingers, the politicizing of it going forward. Speaker 3: 05:26 I think that it absolutely does it. I don't see the conversation that actually changing. I think we have to begin, uh, Mark by saying that it is really difficult to say how much climate change influence any particular storm. If in fact it influenced that particular storm, but we have to look at the overall and we do know that climate change is I'm doing a lot of things and it's not just I'm causing heat in California and helping to spread wildfires. It also factors into cold weather. For example, a lot of people are saying, well, how in the world did all of this cold air get down into Texas? What happened there? Well, if you go out to the Arctic circle, we have something called the polar vortex, which is this massive swirling kind of like a ball of cold air and it can expand. And in winter time, uh, it's not unusual for warm air to kind of filter into that region and, um, really changed the dynamics. Speaker 3: 06:19 And what it really does is causes the jet stream up there in the Arctic region to break down. And that allows the cold air to break out. That's why they call this an Arctic breakout. And this year, some of, you know, just an extraordinary amount of that broke out and went down through our country and it went much farther and much deeper, much wider than it had in previous years. Is this event tied to global warming? I think anybody can make a defense of it or an argument for it, because again, we don't know about a single event, but collectively, um, everybody is worried that there will be increasing numbers of these kinds of events, justice. They're worried about increasing numbers of droughts in California in serious, um, uh, wildfires in California now for, um, Ted Cruz. You may remember that last year, he made fun of California saying that, you know, we could even keep a civilization going because we had to have rotating power outages when the grid came down, uh, during the wildfires and the winds, well, Texas has just expanded experience a different variation of it. So we're all kind of in a bad spot. And what they, what they're going to need to do is have good thoughtful politics to figure out how to improve these, um, power grids, because many of them are ancient. They need a lot of work. Speaker 1: 07:36 And of course, all of this is related to the other dominant news story, the Corona virus pandemic, because the weather is having effect on vaccines and a distribution and a delivery here even here in San Diego. Uh, uh, can you see that connection and the impact there? And look at the big picture for us Speaker 3: 07:53 Really gets a problem to begin with. You know, we have two vaccines that have to be kept at a certain degree and it's a very cold degree, but you know, it takes a lot to take care of them. Uh, and, uh, so shipping them across country, uh, it can be a very difficult thing. And some of that shipping is occurring on ground transportation. I don't believe that all of it is air transportation, but any delay, uh, that goes on right now is a hurtful one because these, um, the centers, particularly the UC San Diego centers are just poised and ready to put needles in people's arms and the same as beginning to become true of our local pharmacies. So we have people standing around waiting to inoculate people and we're having trouble getting the vaccine into our County. And some of it does appear to be as a result of the bad weather. So one thing causes another, which causes another, and it could end up delaying some of the vaccinations that we have this week. Speaker 1: 08:47 I've been speaking with the union Tribune, science and technology reporter, Gary Robbins. Thanks so much, Gary. Thank you, Mark. On January 22,980 San Diego means tested positive for Corona virus. A month later, that total is dropped by more than 75% to about 700 cases a day. The welcome plunge in cases might be due to a number of factors, but a cracked down on those defying public health orders in San Diego is not among them here to explain as Jesse Marks associate editor of voice of San Diego. Jesse, welcome back to the round table. Thanks Mark. We'll start by reminding us what mayor Todd Gloria promised back in December when Corona virus cases were skyrocketing, the hospitals here were getting overwhelmed. Speaker 4: 09:30 So on December 30th of last year, Gloria held a press conference. And if you remember at the time Mark, the County was worried that a spike in cases was, was going to lead to quote a crushed in ICU capacity, basically, meaning they were worried that they were going to run out of availability for, for beds and hospitals. Public officials at the time were literally telling people to cancel their holiday plans. So Gloria comes out a day before new year's Eve and he signs an executive order, which did two big things in, in my mind, one, it eased up on parking restrictions and two, it also urged the police department to step up its enforcement of anyone who was blatantly defying, public health orders against say illegal gatherings, maybe a restaurant that had indoor dining. When it shouldn't. What was interesting about that is there are already a couple of state laws on the books that the police department could use to cite people. And in fact, the police department has done that over the last year, but what Gloria wound up actually doing was pointing the police department to a municipal code violation, which is basically the equivalent of a speeding ticket. Speaker 1: 10:34 And we're going to get into that in a second, but you went looking for this surge in enforcement that the mayor promised, what did you find? Speaker 4: 10:40 So I found a couple of interesting things. One, none of the COVID related tickets that had been issued by the San Diego police department last year under the state law had actually been filed in criminal court. The city attorney's office hadn't actually touched them, although the city's prosecutors technically had a year to do so after the data which the ticket was issued. So the city attorney's office won't comment on why they haven't actually filed those cases and those cases haven't materialized. But I think it's fair to speculate that the city doesn't actually believe it can win those cases because of the constantly changing guidelines around COVID. And then the second interesting thing I found was that the police department in the weeks after Gloria's executive order had only issued five municipal code violations. And those are primarily to businesses and managers of businesses that had been the subject to complaints from the public one for instance, was an indoor gym and the others were mostly restaurants. Speaker 1: 11:38 Now explain specifically how glorious shifted the disposition of these cases because of the pandemic, the superior courts at a huge case backlog, we've talked about that on KPBS and what's, uh, Todd Gloria's solution, this obscure municipal code, he found the municipal code interesting Speaker 4: 11:54 Because of the language that it used. It was written in the 1970s around the same time that the city was establishing a local disaster council, and it needed something to point to if people interfered and say an emergency, but what it did in the process was appropriate the language of a city under siege, essentially by an invading force. So the language of the municipal code literally says, people ought not give quote assistance to the enemy. So in this case, I guess the enemy is, is COVID. Um, but more importantly, by shifting the enforcement of COVID away from the state law in, towards the city law, Gloria was changing the route through which a ticket would be handled municipal code violations, go to what's known as the traffic and minor offense court, rather than the criminal court at the superior courthouse, which has a higher burden of proof. And it also, as you mentioned a second ago, has a massive backlog of cases over the last year. Speaker 1: 12:51 And what's the practical effect of all this on how San Diego cops are enforcing COVID-19 code violation. Speaker 4: 12:57 I think it's fair to say what, what the value and what Gloria did on December 30th was go in front of TV cameras in front of the public and discourage the public from doing something that would potentially put the lives and wellbeing of other people at risk. However, practically speaking, I don't think all that much has really changed, at least not yet. In the first few months of the pandemic, police issued more than 160 tickets, but like I said before, none of those actually materialized into criminal cases that, that I could find about midway through last year, the police department changed its methods. It decided that it was going to start educating people before punishing them. And it was going to reserve its enforcement for businesses at other places of gathering that had been the subject of cease and desist orders, or even shut down orders. So by sending tickets to traffic court, instead of criminal court, Gloria was attempting to speed up the prosecutions and ensure that the prosecutions would actually take place. But whether they will is still an open question, Speaker 1: 13:59 No, you interviewed some folks who've been cited for violations. What did they have to say? Speaker 4: 14:03 It was a really interesting conversations because I spoke with people separately at separate businesses, not only the owners and managers, but some of the employees. And they all told me essentially the same thing, which was that when the officer showed up to issue the tickets, they got a very strong impression that the police department was only there as a matter of show and that they themselves didn't actually believe the business owners and managers would ever need to appear in court because of the changing rules around COVID. And the fact that this is all confused. Speaker 1: 14:34 Yeah. And, and not only confusing, as we said at the outset, the numbers thankfully are getting, uh, are improving dramatically in these, these case numbers more and more people getting vaccinated. Of course. And I wonder if the cops and the people who might be violating codes are bending the rules, they might feel like it's going to get eased or here before most people get to court. And it's all kind of wink and nod. Who knows? Huh? Speaker 4: 14:55 Yeah. I think that's certainly a possibility. And I think that's part of the calculation that a lot of businesses have taken. It does look like the number of cases have been trending downward as you noted before. But crucially, the last time I checked, which was last week, none of the municipal code tickets had actually been filed in traffic court yet there's always a bit of a time lag, but you know, in some cases it's been five or six weeks and there's nothing that's materialized yet. What's interesting to note though, is the people who did receive municipal code tickets said that those tickets included a court date on there at sometime in may, which is three months from now. So who knows where we're going to actually be at, in terms of the pandemic and the vaccine rollout, but for what it's worth, I did relay that information to Gloria and Gloria told me that he fully expects the police department to file the tickets and traffic court as soon as possible. So there's certainly political pressure being applied Speaker 1: 15:45 Well, unlike, uh, with immigration or going way back to the draft and the Vietnam war, maybe amnesty, won't be a nasty word in all of this, but finally we do not have a mandate on mass squaring for everyone in public around here. What's the mayor saying about that? Unfortunately, such a mandate as a whole different matter from enforcement on restaurants and other businesses, right? Speaker 4: 16:06 Yeah, that's true. There, there was some discussion last year at the city council level about a mask mandate, but it didn't go anywhere. And I don't know, honestly, Mark, if they've actually been helpful in reducing infection rates or ICU capacity, but I can tell you that Gloria said a mask mandate is still on the table, but he hopes it doesn't come to that. He said, he's not convinced that punishing people individually will do all that much for most of last year officials, including the police had targeted large gathering places that defied the public health orders. And that's still appears to be the case today. The potential drawback, however of that approach is that businesses might just incorporate the cost of any tickets into their costs of doing business. So then it becomes just a simple math equation, right? People will weigh the potential financial penalties if there's even a penalty at all against the money that they're bringing in to remain open in ways that they technically shouldn't Speaker 1: 17:02 Right. And it's tough to, if we've all been peddling faced and we're going through this thing and it's tough to really penalize people further for what you know they normally do. And it's certainly not a crime to run a business or wander around in public without a mask on your face in normal times. Absolutely. Well, I've been speaking with Jesse Marks associate editor at voice of San Diego. Thanks a lot, Jesse. Thanks for having me Mark pursuing a college degree in 2021. Isn't easy today's students face long odds, even getting into a major university with fierce competition, demanding excellent grades in high school. If they can clear that hurdle, then there's the cost. It's not uncommon to get a five or even six figure student loan bill upon earning a degree. The idea of student debt forgiveness is gaining traction. It was a topic of discussion during the presidential town hall this week. And our guest is covering it for the San Diego state university student newspaper, the daily Aztec. We welcome social media editor, Kaitlin wind to the round table. Hello Kaitlin, how are you doing well, first off, why did you feel this was an important topic to cover for the daily Aztec? Speaker 5: 18:06 Well, you know, the obvious answer is lots of college students. This affects a lot of them and San Diego state students are no stranger to student loans and, you know, for some students, it's the only way they can gain access to a four year university and get a degree. Speaker 1: 18:20 And in your story in the daily Aztec, you write, there's a recent drop in reliance on loans, at least at SDSU. Why is that? I find that really surprising because you hear so much that people get out and I've talked to young people that are starting their careers who do have six figure loans, but as the university providing more scholarships, Speaker 5: 18:38 Um, that's definitely a part of it. STCU has been providing more scholarships and connecting students with more non SDSU based ones. But I also think it's another trend of, you know, we're seeing students are more educated on financial aid and the whole system. A lot of them know to seek grants and scholarships before taking out loans. And they're also learning the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans, as well as comparing different interest rates before they're committing to the loan. Speaker 1: 19:04 So they're getting pretty savvy about loans in general. It sounds like now it's been a challenging year of remote learning during the pandemic, but one benefit has been the pause on student loan interest. How much is that helping students? Speaker 5: 19:17 It does make some current students feel slightly less worried, but there's still that overall pressure of paying them off once I graduate and really this pauses affecting recent graduates and SDSU alum the most, because most loans aren't required to be paid off until after about a six month grace period. Post-graduation. And I've also noticed that, um, the students I've talked to a lot of them have had to take out more loans during the pandemic as well. So while the 0% interest rate provides some relief, students definitely could use more in terms of relief during the pandemic. Speaker 1: 19:49 Well, I mentioned in the open that, uh, there was a town hall this week and president of Joe Biden had something to say on CNN about forgiving up to $50,000 in student loan debt. And he isn't sold on the idea that we're gonna play this clip. And then I want to get your reaction on the other side, Speaker 6: 20:04 Not make that happen. It depends on whether or not you go to a private university or public university. It depends on the idea that I say to a community I'm going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars to debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn and schools, my children, I went to a great school. I went to a state school. Um, but is that going to be forgiven rather than use that money to provide for early education for young children who are come from disadvantaged circumstances? Speaker 1: 20:38 Well, it's not a surprise that most students would be in favor of debt forgiveness. Uh, but among the people you spoke with, do they believe this might eventually happen? Is it just a something politicians talk about Speaker 5: 20:49 In terms of like total student loan debt forgiveness? A lot of them are very skeptical. The ones I talked to are optimistic about that 10000% being forgiven, but overall from the students that I've talked to, they believe that, you know, while this is a step in the right direction, you know, for giving some student loans, they believe this isn't getting to the root of the problem. A lot of them decided that they wanted more equitable and accessible tuition, and they also provided some possible solutions in terms of existing loans. So loan consolidation, loan, payment, extensions, and overall lowered interest, even after the pendant Speaker 1: 21:26 Young voters were the demographic that backed Joe Biden the most in the last presidential election. Do you think higher education and affordability played a role in that? Was that an issue for young people in that campaign? Speaker 5: 21:38 Definitely. Without a doubt, like those buzzwords higher education affordability, that definitely appealed to younger voters. And I th I believe that's why they, you know, showed up and a lot of them played a big part in getting Biden. Speaker 1: 21:50 Yeah, it's remarkable. I was looking back to 2016 and then comparing some of the notes just in San Diego County in 2020. And so many more young people voted, uh, college aged students. It was remarkable now. Um, how might Biden's view on student debt be received, Chris, this is all fluid. He's got to get this through Congress and even get his own party convinced, uh, in the house in the Senate. Speaker 5: 22:11 I mean, in terms of the statements he just put out recently, I feel like, I mean, from the beginning, young voters made it no secret. They're going to hold anyone that's in the oval office accountable, regardless of who it is. And I know they're very skeptical right now towards the Biden. And if he's going to hold up to that promise, if we're going to even see 10,000 or if it's going to be even less, I know that from what I've seen and what I've heard from younger voters, this isn't being received very well. It's being received pretty poorly, a lot of unrest and anger, but a lot of them say, they're not surprised. Yeah. Speaker 1: 22:42 Well, politicians disappointing people, unfortunately, not new at all in our society. Well, before we wrap up, let's take a big picture. Look at the college experience right now. It's looking like the full academic year might be done. Remotely. Things are looking better. The numbers are looking better, but we're a long way from home. Uh, you focus on social media, which is where a lot of conversations happen. How are students at SDSU holding up? Is this been a struggle? Are they finding ways to make it work a year into this Speaker 5: 23:10 By a thread? Honestly, they're feeling really burnt out even this early in the semester. They're having a lot of mental health issues. I know screen time has risen exponentially and a lot of students also took the semester off because of that. And they're just saying that the quality of education just isn't the same online versus in person, which is understandable. And I mean, students are still upset about the contentious decision by the university Senate to cancel spring break. They're just overall, when I do a lot of interviews, especially with angered students, they're feeling that like SDSU doesn't care about them or listening to their voice so much has done on social media Speaker 1: 23:46 Now, because of course we can't be on campus. And what are students saying to each other the back and forth and not just in terms of, of loans, but also value for this last year, they're getting their money's worth and schooling remotely instead of being on campus. And what does the conversation look like as you interview people yourself and you'll see the back and forth on social media? Speaker 5: 24:06 Yeah. I mean, there's a lot, there's been a lot of talk about, I regret, I regret applying STCU. I regret choosing to go here instead, because we've heard a lot from other, you know, CSU and other UCS and how they're dealing with COVID right off the bat. And I mean, in terms of other reactions like gen Z is a very, you know, they're very in the means we've seen a lot of means about it going around. Cause you know, humor is the best way to cope with the, um, communal suffering. If you will, people feel like the tuition price just doesn't match the quality of education we're getting. We, we don't understand why we're paying more. Our tuition was raised too. I think in fall 2022 for, I believe it was increased mental health services and more cultural centers. Obviously we don't have access to that because we're not on campus. And it's still really hard to get mental health help online. Speaker 1: 24:57 Maybe when you get back to campus, eventually we might see some protests and marches or banners that say a remote refund or something like that. Speaker 5: 25:06 I mean, I recently, I seen a thing going around about how students can put input because president Adela is getting evaluated. I've seen that go around. Like not a lot of students know this, but you can actually submit your thoughts and your comments too. And so people have been spreading that on their Insta stories and sharing it on Twitter. Speaker 1: 25:24 Imagine that she's probably getting an earful right about now. Well, I've been speaking with Caitlin when she's the social media editor for the daily Aztec at San Diego state university. Thanks Katelyn. That wraps up our discussion of the week's top stories I'd like to thank my guests, Gary Robbins of the San Diego union Tribune. Jesse Marks a voice of San Diego and Caitlin wind of the San Diego state daily Aztec. You can find all the stories we discussed on our website, I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for listening and join us again next week on the round table.

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A deep freeze in Texas and elsewhere becomes the latest political fight over how to deal with climate change, San Diego's push to step up enforcement of COVID-19 violations doesn't materialize and local college students weigh in on the debate over whether to forgive student loan debt.