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News Brief: Climate Report, Taliban Gains, Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Trial

NOEL KING, HOST:

A monumental U.N. report released just this morning says climate change is accelerating, and we are running out of time to stop it.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The stark conclusions are in the biggest global climate report in almost a decade. More than 200 scientists from around the world helped write it. Ko Barrett it is the vice chair of the U.N. panel behind the report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KO BARRETT: It is still possible to forestall many of the most dire impacts, but it really requires unprecedented transformational change.

KING: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team is following this one. Hi, Becky.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: How much time do we have to reverse this? And what happens if we don't?

HERSHER: Well, you know, the window is narrower and narrower if we want to really avoid catastrophic things like multiple feet of sea level rise, huge food supply disruptions, you know, mass die-offs in the ocean. So this report looks at all the climate research available, and it finds that global warming is accelerating. And here are some numbers for you. So the Earth is almost two degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it was in the late 1800s. Every decade, it's getting hotter faster. The same goes for sea level rise. It's accelerated since the 1970s. And it's really important to say the science is unequivocal here. This is happening because humans are burning oil and gas and coal, emitting greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. And on these big climate headlines, scientists are not hedging their language because the evidence is just overwhelming.

KING: What's the evidence?

HERSHER: So there are two big advances that are playing out here. First, the climate models that scientists use to understand what the future is going to look like, they are getting better. So, for example, this report, it's able to say definitively that the rate of global warming since 1970 is the fastest in the last 2,000 years. But the other huge thing in recent years is something called attribution science, and that's research that connects global warming directly to individual weather events like heat waves and hurricanes and droughts. So scientists have actually gotten a lot better at seeing the fingerprints of our hotter Earth on these disasters, which means we can draw a straight line from burning those fossil fuels to more deadly disasters.

KING: OK. I'm taking a deep breath to lower my pulse.

HERSHER: Yes.

KING: At this point, can human beings reverse the damage, or is it too late?

HERSHER: It is not too late. That is a big takeaway from this report. It's not too late, but it's almost too late. So scientists looked at five scenarios for future emissions and for population and economic growth. And for example, what if every country stops burning fossil fuels in the next 10 to 20 years? You know, what would happen? And what they found is if humans cut emissions that fast, it would still be possible to meet the temperature targets set by the Paris agreement. And that would avoid the most catastrophic warming later this century. Although I have to mention there are some effects that are unavoidable at this point. So even if we cut emissions to zero today, sea levels would keep rising until the middle of the century. But even there, there's a silver lining. We would avoid multiple feet of sea level rise later in the century.

KING: OK, so scientists are telling us this staggering news and world leaders are saying what in response?

HERSHER: Well, there's a huge gap between the scientists and world leaders. So scientists are saying that emissions need to fall really fast starting right now. But global emissions are still going up, and some of the biggest economies in the world don't have any plans to reduce emissions this decade. So that includes China and India. Meanwhile, the U.S., you know, it's one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. And the Biden administration promised to cut U.S. emissions in half this decade. But right now, there aren't policies in place that would achieve that goal. And if anything, this report suggests that the U.S. would need to move even more quickly.

KING: OK. Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team. Thanks for bringing us this, Rebecca.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

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KING: All right. If the Taliban are telling the truth, their fighters took control of three Afghan cities this weekend.

ELLIOTT: The Afghan government says that's not true. But officials in the northern province of Kunduz say the governor's office, the police headquarters and the main prison are now in Taliban hands. Taliban fighters who were imprisoned there have been freed.

KING: Susannah George is in Kabul. She covers Afghanistan for The Washington Post. And, Susannah, I want to start by asking you whether the Taliban are telling the truth. Do they control these three cities?

SUSANNAH GEORGE: Well, I would not describe it as control. What Taliban fighters have been able to do over the past day or so is overrun these cities. They've pushed through the security perimeters that were established by Afghan government forces around the cities and then made their way into the city center. That's where they were able to overrun prisons, free some of their fighters who then bolstered their ranks and allowed them to take control of these clusters of government compounds that exist in each of these provincial capitals that are really like the heart of government control in these cities. And when they did that, that forced government officials to flee to military bases on the outskirts of the city as clashes continue in the urban areas.

KING: OK, so the significance of the prisons is that they're going in, they're letting their guys out and then their guys are fighting alongside them. How though, Susannah, are they moving so quickly? Three cities in the course of a weekend, that sounds extraordinary.

GEORGE: Yeah. You know, when I talk to Afghan forces on the ground, the first thing that they say when I ask them this question is they blame it on the quick drop in U.S. support for their operations, specifically air power and airstrikes and surveillance. But if you look at a lot of the districts that fell in the lead-up to this quick fall of I think it's now five cities in just a few days, a lot of these districts fell without a shot fired. And what that points to is a deeper problem within the Afghan forces, a lack of faith in their own ability to fight against the Taliban without U.S. support. And it's really these desertions and the surrenders that gave the Taliban the momentum that they needed to then launch these attacks on these more heavily guarded urban areas.

KING: What are you hearing from civilians in these cities?

GEORGE: Well, they're terrified. I mean, a lot of these cities, their populations have been swelling over the past few weeks as people from districts, from more rural areas have fled fighting to seek refuge in these urban areas, which they thought were safe. And now, because the Taliban have pushed into these urban areas, what they've done is they've turned these cities into a battlefield, and civilians are trapped. They have nowhere else to go.

KING: OK. The Biden administration says it will get most U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this month. Is there any indication that what's going on right now and the swiftness with which it's happening might change the U.S.' decision?

GEORGE: You know, we've seen no indication of that over here.

KING: OK. Susannah George of The Washington Post in Kabul. Thanks so much for your reporting, Susannah. We really appreciate it.

GEORGE: Thank you.

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KING: All right. A federal judge in New York will hear closing arguments today in the bankruptcy of Purdue Pharma.

ELLIOTT: Part of the bankruptcy is a controversial plan that would give legal immunity to the company's owners, members of the Sackler family. And a lot of people are not very happy about that. The court record includes emotional accounts of the ways that pain killers took lives and destroyed families.

KEOLA KEKUEWA: It ended up needle into needles and accidental overdose, purposeful suicide attempts. I mean, it opened up this dark, horrible world that I didn't know existed.

KING: NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been following this story almost from the beginning. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So these testimonies, these letters that people are sending to the court are remarkable. What are they for? What is the purpose?

MANN: This is really interesting, Noel. You know, these letters don't play any formal role in a bankruptcy proceeding, but a lot of people, NPR found, were compelled to write these letters to the judge, and he allowed their personal letters to be included as part of the public record. The voice we just heard belongs to Keola Kekuewa, who lives in Honolulu. He described to me his own desperate struggle with addiction after OxyContin flooded his community. He's asked the court for more than $2 million in compensation from Purdue Pharma as part of this bankruptcy. He's actually likely to receive around $3,500. But he says his biggest concern isn't the money. It's that he doesn't think this plan does enough to punish the company's owners, members of the Sackler family, who pushed OxyContin sales.

KEKUEWA: They lied and said that it's not addicting.

MANN: And now the Sacklers, of course, maintain they did nothing wrong. Their company, however, Purdue Pharma, has admitted misleading doctors and the public about the addiction risks.

KING: So we know that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of overdoses at this point. And I imagine the testimony, the letters, are not just coming from people who've struggled with addiction. They're coming from their family members, too, family members who've lost people.

MANN: Yeah, that's right. And, again, a common theme here is that many of these family members don't believe the Sacklers are being punished enough. Joanne Peterson, who lives in Massachusetts, says she actually became an opioid activist after her niece and her son both became addicted to OxyContin.

JOANNE PETERSON: Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family need to be held accountable. Millions of families are longing for justice. And we bury people as they live lavish lifestyles.

MANN: I also spoke to Leona Nuss in Virginia who lost her son Randall to an OxyContin overdose in 2003. She actually wrote a handwritten letter pointing out that Purdue Pharma has admitted to federal crimes related to opioid sales, but the Sacklers themselves have never been charged. Family members say they had no knowledge of criminal activity or unethical behavior. Nuss told NPR she wrote two letters to the court but actually refused to ask for damages.

LEONA NUSS: You know, how can I put a price on my son's life? I just couldn't do it. We just want the transparency, and we would like to see them be punished. To see them get away with this and to watch them and just hold up their heads so high - like, no remorse, no nothing.

MANN: So these letters really are wrenching. But again, members of the Sackler family have said repeatedly they did nothing wrong.

KING: And let's say that this settlement goes ahead. It's a done deal. What would the Sacklers end up paying?

MANN: Yeah. Members of the Sackler family, again, would admit no wrongdoing. They would give up ownership of their bankrupt company. They'd also pay about $4.2 billion in installments, but they'd remain very wealthy people. And this also shelters them from all future opioid lawsuits. So they would walk away completely protected there. A lot of legal experts we've interviewed say they think this is the best deal that's possible. And the money will go to help people with health programs and addiction reduction programs across the country.

KING: OK, NPR's Brian Mann. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.