A Grave Warning On Climate Change, Victims Slam Purdue Pharma, Brazil's Riveting Corruption Inquiry: News You Need To Start Your Day

Published August 9, 2021 at 7:21 AM EDT
A firefighter surveys a destroyed downtown during the Dixie fire in Greenville, Calif., on Sunday.
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A firefighter surveys a destroyed downtown during the Dixie fire in Greenville, Calif. on Sunday. The largest wildfire in California has razed Greenville, warping street lights and destroying historic buildings hours after residents were ordered to flee.

Good morning. We hope everyone had a safe and happy weekend.

Here's the news we're following to start the week:

  • A monumental U.N. report warns that climate change is accelerating and countries around the world must stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible to avoid catastrophe.
  • A federal judge in New York is hearing closing arguments today in the bankruptcy case of Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin. Hundreds of opioid victims have submitted heart-wrenching letters to protest the plan.
  • A Brazilian Senate committee has been holding televised hearings on President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus crisis, drawing huge TV audiences.

🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, victims tell their stories in the bankruptcy trial of Purdue Pharma, the company that makes Oxycontin.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark, Carol Ritchie)

Just In
Climate Change

Climate Change Is Accelerating And We're Running Out Of Time To Stop It, The U.N. Says

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Silhouettes of people holding on to a fire house in a tree-filled forest, against the backdrop of grey smoke and a partially orange sky.
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Police officers help firefighters to extinguish a fire in Thrakomakedones, north of Athens, as several wildfires raged in Greece on Saturday.

Humans must stop burning fossil fuels urgently or suffer catastrophic environmental impacts. That's according to the United Nations' most comprehensive global climate science report ever, written by nearly 200 scientists from around the world and released early this morning.

It says the Earth is heating up faster than ever before, and warns that the window to reverse the damage (think heat waves, sea level rise and food supply disruptions) is narrowing. Countries can forestall some of the worst impacts by cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero — but they have to take urgent and unprecedented action.

Read about the report or hear from Rebecca Hersher of NPR's climate team.

What does the report say? Global warming is accelerating, according to all available climate research. The Earth is nearly two degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it was in the late 1800s, and is getting hotter, faster every single decade. Sea level rise is also accelerating. All of this is because humans are burning oil, gas and coal, emitting greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere.

How do we know? The climate models that researchers use are improving — for example, this report can say definitively that the rate of global warming since 1970 is the fastest in the last 2,000 years. Scientists have also gotten better at connecting global warming directly to individual weather events like heat waves and hurricanes, through a field of research called "attribution science."

Can we avoid the damage? "It's not too late, but it's almost too late," Hersher explains. Scientists looked at five scenarios for future emissions, population and economic growth, and found that if every country were to stop burning fossil fuels in the next 10 to 20 years, it would still be possible to avoid the most catastrophic warming later this century. Some effects are unavoidable, though. If we cut emissions to zero today, sea levels would keep rising until the middle of the century (but we would avoid a sea level rise of multiple feet in the decades ahead).

How are world leaders responding? Some of the biggest economies in the world, like China and India, don't have any plans to reduce emissions this decade. In the U.S., which is one of the world's top emitters of greenhouse gasses, the Biden administration has promised to cut emissions in half this decade — but there are no current policies in place to achieve that goal.

Politics

New York Lawmakers Will Meet Today To Discuss Whether To Impeach Cuomo

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Andrew Cuomo speaks at a podium during an event. The New York City skyline can be seen through the windows.
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference at One World Trade Center on June 15 in New York City.

Judiciary committee members of the New York state Assembly are meeting this morning to consider beginning impeachment proceedings against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

A report released last week by New York's attorney general found that Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women and retaliated against some of them for speaking out about the abuse. Late Sunday, Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo's top aide, resigned.

Cuomo says he didn't do anything wrong and won't resign. But it may be state assembly members who ultimately decide the fate of his office.

They've been conducting an impeachment investigation since March, focusing on four main areas: the sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo's handling of information about senior living facility deaths during the pandemic, the potential use of government staff for his memoir and construction and safety issues around the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.

The majority of state assembly members have said they would support an impeachment trial if Cuomo doesn't resign, and nearly all state senators have called for Cuomo to step down or be removed.

One of the lawmakers attending this morning's meeting is New York Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz. She spoke to Noel King on Morning Edition.

"The history in New York when it comes to impeachments: We don't have that much backup. There's only been one situation like this in the entire history before. So, we want to get it right. And we want to get it right, not just because these women deserve us getting it right, but because the people on New York deserve us getting it right."
New York Assembly woman Catalina Cruz

Hear their full conversation on possible impeachment proceedings against Cuomo here.

Opioid Epidemic

Hear Victims Of Purdue Pharma's Painkillers Slam Its Bankruptcy Plan

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A federal judge in New York is hearing closing arguments today in the bankruptcy case of Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin.

The controversial plan is for members of the Sackler family to give up ownership of the bankrupt company and pay roughly $4.2 billion in installments over the next decade. In return, they'll get immunity from opioid-related lawsuits, admit no wrongdoing and retain most of their roughly 11 billion dollars in estimated wealth.

The Sacklers have said repeatedly that they've done nothing wrong, and many legal experts have told NPR that the deal could do real good, with billions of dollars going to support drug rehab and health programs aimed at reducing overdose deaths and addiction.

But there's a lot of anger and confusion over the bankruptcy process, and critics say this deal doesn't punish the Sacklers enough.

While much of the bankruptcy process has focused on the financials, NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann dug into court records and found hundreds of deeply personal letters about the toll painkillers took on victim's lives and families.

They don't formally factor into the bankruptcy case, but the judge has allowed them to be included in the public record in what Mann describes as a, "window on the human cost of the opioid crisis."

Listen to the stories here.

"I had an awesome job, I was in love, it was beautiful and I was a beautiful person ... It ended up into needles and accidental overdoses, purposeful suicide attempts -- it opened up this dark horrible world that I didn't know existed."
- Keola Kekuewa

"I've lost count over 15 years on how many funerals I've attended, and then I had to plan one myself for my niece and we buried her ... 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."
- Joanne Peterson
"How could I put a price on my son's life? I just couldn't do it. We just want transparency, 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."
- Leona Nuss

Latin America

An Inquiry Into Brazil's Pandemic Response Turns Into Must-See TV

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Brazil hits 500,000 COVID-19 deaths amid nationwide protests
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Thousands of people protested against the government of President Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro in June.

A Brazilian Senate committee has been holding televised hearings in its months-long investigation into President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic has eased in Brazil recently, but it's still killing an average of nearly 1,000 people a day and accounts for 560,000 COVID-19 deaths overall.

Phillip Reeves, NPR's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, reports that the fiery hearings have drawn huge TV audiences and generated major headlines. Senators are demanding to know why Bolsonaro scoffed at the virus for so long, and why his officials squandered live-saving opportunities to buy vaccines.

Bolsonaro faces an election next year and his poll numbers are slipping. Under fire, he claimed without proof that Brazil's electronic voting system can be manipulated. He even threatened to cancel the elections unless the system is changed.

🎧 Listen to hear one official bursting into tears under the senators' tough questioning, along with more about Bolsanaro and the situation in Brazil.

KQED Reports

California's Dixie Fire Is Officially The Second-Largest In State History

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A sepia-tinted photo shows rows of burned cars and trucks in a lot, against a background of burnt trees and smoky sky.
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Dozens of burned vehicles rest in heavy smoke in Greenville, Calif., on Friday.

More than 5,000 firefighters are working to contain Northern California's Dixie Fire, which hcas destroyed hundreds of buildings and entire communities in the Sierra Nevada since it started burning in mid-July.

It's now considered the second-largest recorded wildfire in state history.

Kate Wolffe of member station KQED explains that a weekend of heavy smoke and low winds has slowed the spread, but crews are still scrambling to bring the blaze under control before the weather changes again.

Listen to Wolffe's report here.

San Francisco-based utility company Pacific Gas & Electric has said that state and federal agencies are investigating whether its power lines started the Dixie Fire and another small blaze nearby.

Dr. Scott Stephens, who runs the Fire Science Laboratory at the University of California Berkeley, says the situation has been exacerbated by a combination of climate change and poor forest management.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also emphasized the role of climate change during a weekend visit to the small town of Greenville, which was completely destroyed by the fire last week.

Climate researchers have found that higher average temperatures are increasing the length of the fire season as well as the number of places where fires can happen.

The Dixie Fire is one of the 10 large fires currently burning in California and more than 100 reported across the Western U.S.

Science

NASA Wants You To Spend A Year Simulating Life On Mars, For Science

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An image of NASA Perseverance Mars rover traveling through the planet's atmosphere. The image is in black and white, with an enlarged area to show the rover's small image.
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In this handout image provided by NASA, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captures the descent of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover through the Martian atmosphere. Nasa is looking for applicants for a year-long simulated Mars mission on Earth.

Would you like to spend a year pretending to live on Mars in a 1,700-square-foot space shared with three other people?

If that's your idea of a dream job, you can thank your lucky stars, because NASA is hiring.

The agency is seeking applicants for what it calls a "one-year analog mission in a habitat to simulate life on a distant world." NASA plans to observe humans in a Mars-like situation on Earth so it can study the challenges that might crop up during a future mission to the Red Planet.

Grace Douglas, the lead scientist for NASA’s Advanced Food Technology research effort at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, says the simulated mission will benefit future missions that actually go to space. “Simulations on Earth will help us understand and counter the physical and mental challenges astronauts will face before they go,” Douglas says.

NASA is looking for four crew members who will live and work for a year in a 3D-printed, 1,700-square-foot module called Mars Dune Alpha, based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. According to NASA, the crew might perform tasks, such as simulated spacewalks, using virtual reality and robotic controls, exchanging communications and conducting other research.

The posting calls for healthy and motivated U.S. citizens between the ages of 30 and 55 years old, plus a STEM master's degree or sufficient experience piloting an aircraft.

It won't necessarily be an easy gig, though. NASA warns the crew will experience simulated problems like those humans might face on Mars, including resource limitations, equipment failure, communication delays and other environmental stressors.

In exchange, selected crew members will help bring humans one step closer to reaching Mars.

Music News

The Trial Of Singer R. Kelly Starts Today After Years Of Delays. Here's What Has Happened Along The Way

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R. Kelly appears during a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Sept. 17, 2019 in Chicago, Ill.

R&B singer and songwriter R. Kelly is due to stand trial in Brooklyn, N.Y., starting today.

He faces a host of charges — and has pleaded not guilty to all of them — including accusations that he abused girls and women over two decades, made child pornography and issued hush-money payments to silence alleged victims. Federal prosecutors also charged him with racketeering — building a criminal enterprise designed to "prey upon young women and teenagers."

Legal proceedings were delayed by the pandemic, conflicting charges from prosecutors in New York and Illinois, and changes on his defense team. And a lot has happened since 2019.

Get caught up on the key developments with this helpful primer from NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.

Tokyo 2020🥇

Catch These Standout Moments From The Summer Olympics

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The Olympic Cauldron and the Olympic flame are pictured during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Sunday in Tokyo.

It's a wrap on the much-anticipated Summer Games — aka the "COVID Olympics" — after Sunday morning's Closing Ceremony (see photos here).

So now seems like a perfect time to review some of the moments that warmed our hearts and made the history books. Check out 14 Moments That Swept Us Away At The Tokyo Olympics, courtesy of NPR's intrepid team in Japan.

Highlights include: Allyson Felix becoming the most decorated woman and U.S. athlete in track and field history, Simone Biles' comeback after withdrawing to focus on mental health, U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders defying the ban on podium protests, a runner winning her 1,500-km race even after falling and a 14-year-old Chinese diver scoring two perfect 10s.

Check out more of NPR's Tokyo coverage here, or catch highlights below. And you'll be able to get your fix again soon: The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are a mere six months away.

History

Machu Picchu Is Older Than You Think

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Th ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu is shown along a background of mountains.
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Machu Picchu shown in 2020, closed to tourists due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Until now, historians had to rely on the Spanish conquistadors to guess at the age of the Incan citadel, high in the Andes Mountains. Researchers now have evidence that human habitation began in Machu Picchu at least decades earlier.

“People were thinking that it dated back to 1450.” Richard Burger, a professor of anthropology at Yale, tells Morning Edition.

Burger and his team found evidence that Machu Picchu can date all the way back to 1420, 30 years older than thought.

Burger and his team made the discovery using organic material taken from skeletons found in 1912, and with the help of a process called accelerator mass spectrometry.

But Burger is optimistic that more can be uncovered. "Maybe we need a radical revision of the chronology and maybe even push it into the 14th century. Maybe we’re completely off,” Burger says.

Up until now, the only way historians could know the real age of the historical population was through documents from the Spanish conquest or quipus, knotted records left by the Incas.

Listen for more on Machu Picchu's origins here.

International

The Significance Of The Taliban's Major Gains In Afghanistan This Weekend

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People walk along a road with vendors and street signs, with walls and parts of building exteriors in the background.
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People walk along a road in the city of Zaranj, Afghanistan on Saturday, after Taliban fighters captured their first provincial capital since launching an offensive to coincide with the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Taliban fighters overwhelmed three cities on Sunday alone, their most significant gain since the final phase of the U.S. troop withdrawal began in early May.

Susannah George of The Washington Post joined NPR's Debbie Elliott from Kabul to explain the importance of these advances.

Listen to their conversation or read on for excerpts.

What does this mean for Taliban's fight for control of the country? These advances are "incredibly significant," George says. The Taliban's sweep across Afghanistan happened much faster than U.S. and Afghan officials were anticipating, and it seems its focus has shifted from rural to urban areas at a faster-than-expected pace too.

How have Taliban fighters been able to move so quickly? Afghan forces on the ground point to airstrikes, with George explaining that they tell her: "If only they had the level of U.S. air support that they had when forces were here in full, these Taliban advances, we would not be seeing them." But there are other factors at play too, like lack of U.S. ground support and medevac assistance, which George says damages the morale of Afghan forces and undermines their willingness to conduct operations on their own.

Could these developments impact the Biden administration's timeline for withdrawing most U.S. troops by the end of the month? There's been no indication that this weekend's events would impact the withdrawal, but George notes that the U.S. has not yet made a decision about whether to continue airstrikes in support of Afghan forces after that Aug. 31 deadline.

Sports

Former Gymnast Rachael Denhollander Says Culture Hasn't Truly Changed Since Nassar Scandal

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Rachael Denhollander stands in front of a Sports Illustrated logo holding an award. She wears blue and gold floral dress and speaks into a microphone.
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Rachael Denhollander accepts the "Inspiration of the Year Award" in 2018 during the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards.

In 2018, former Olympic and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sexually abusing girls and women under the guise of treatment, and was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. The sentencing came after more than 150 survivors read powerful statements in court reflecting on the abuse. Rachael Denhollander read one of those statements, and the judge called her "the bravest woman I've ever had in my courtroom."

That's because Denhollander was one of the people responsible for bringing Nassar to justice. A former gymnast, she was the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse. She's now a lawyer who has represented survivors in court during USA Gymnastics' bankruptcy proceedings.

Denhollander told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that the sport still has widespread problems with abuse. She also spoke about what Simone Biles' courage meant to abuse survivors.

NPR reached out to USA Gymnastics for a response. President and CEO Li Li Leung provided this statement:

"We recognize how deeply we have broken the trust of our athletes and community, and are working hard to build that trust back. Everything we do now is aimed at creating a safe, inclusive, and positive culture."

Click here to listen to their full conversation or continue below to read the highlights. You can also hear more from the survivors here on the Believed podcast from Michigan Public Radio.

On whether Nassar's conviction meant the end of widespread abuse in US gymnastics:

"Oh, absolutely not. You know, actually, yesterday was five years to the day from the first Indy Star article coming out about the corruption in [USAG], and it had nothing to do with Larry. Because what's been going on in [USAG] is an entire system of abuse, a system of covering up sexual abuse, not just by Larry, but by its member coaches, a system of covering up physical abuse and abusive framework that allowed our athletes to be systematically and routinely starved and isolated from their parents. Larry was not the problem. Larry was a symptom of the problem."

On whether there are still sexual abusers within the gymnastics industry who haven't been brought to justice yet:

"I know for a fact that there are, because I know the victims. Added to that, we've been in bankruptcy proceedings with USAG for the last three years. Two years ago, we had a hearing where I had the opportunity to ask the chief financial officer of USAG some specific questions. And I asked him, has anybody taken those 50 files that the Indy Star reported on? Has anybody taken those files and looked to see if any of those coaches are still coaching? Not only had they not done that, they didn't even know what I meant."

On whether there was a positive element to Simone Biles pulling out of Olympic events to protect her health:

"Actually, I think there is. And I don't think those who have not been engaged in this fight can realize how incredibly significant it was that someone actually walked out on her own strength. She walked out uninjured. She had the wisdom and the courage and the ability to be able to draw that boundary and agency over her own body and her own decisions, which is something that gymnasts haven't had for decades, especially the elite gymnasts. So while I was deeply brokenhearted for her that that choice had to be made and that she was put in a position where her mental health and therefore her physical health was at risk, the fact that she could make that decision and receive support from her coaches was groundbreaking."

Movies

With The New Movie 'CODA,' Deaf Actor Troy Kotsur Is (Finally) Getting The Recognition He Deserves

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A man wearing a grey shirt, navy jacket and grey cap poses with his hand in his pocket and looking off camera, in front of a blue background reading "An Apple Original Film: CODA."
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Troy Kotsur attends the "CODA" Los Angeles photo call in West Hollywood on July 30.

The much-buzzed-about movie CODA is due for release this week after garnering rave reviews at its Sundance Film Festival premiere and cinching a record-breaking distribution deal with Apple.

Actor Troy Kotsur is getting a lot of attention for his supporting performance in particular. He plays the fisherman father of main character Ruby, a "Child of Deaf Adults" (CODA) who dreams of being a singer.

Kotsur, who was born deaf, is no stranger to the stage and screen and has notably appeared in the Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, he's long been honing his craft "despite the structural limitations of an industry that hasn't always recognized his gifts."

"If Troy were a person who could speak and hear, if he were a hearing person, his star would have risen many, many years ago. There is a deep respect for him and his work. And so to finally see him in a place where his work can be witnessed by a larger audience has been an inspiration."
- David Kurs, actor and artistic director of Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles.

Read the full story here, and watch an American Sign Language interview with Kotsur below.

Climate Change

What The U.S. Can Do About That Dire Climate Change Report

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The United Nations just released its landmark climate report, urging countries to urgently cut their greenhouse gas emissions or else face catastrophic consequences.

So what exactly should the Biden administration do?

Climate scientist Allison Crimmins heads the National Climate Assessment, a government report that evaluates how the U.S. is doing on issues related to climate change. She spoke with NPR's Noel King about her takeaways from today's new report.

"Climate change isn't something that's happening far away to someone else in some far-off future time," she says. "It's really happening here and now, to us."

Crimmins says it's both the changes and the rate of changes that are so troubling, and unprecedented. And she notes those are things that Americans are already observing in their own backyards: wildfires in the West, flooding in the Midwest and Northeast, hurricane damage in the South and the impact of rising sea levels along the coast.

Every additional bit of warming will affect all of the things we care about in the U.S., from health to transportation to agriculture, she says. But on the flip side, Crimmins says every action and every year counts.

Listen here for Crimmins' suggestions on what the Biden administration and everyday Americans can do.

"It's not a policy statement but just a scientific statement that if we want to limit global warming and we want to limit those sorts of impacts that are affecting Americans right now, we need strong, rapid, sustained reductions in carbon dioxide and in methane and in other greenhouse gasses."
- Allison Crimmins, director of the Fifth National Climate Assessment

Before You Go
Family

This Dad Is Photoshopping Delightful Images Of His Babies On Improbable Adventures

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Before we leave you for the day, we want to share a story from NPR's Stu Rushfield that's making us smile.

A new mom in Antwerp, Belgium, was anxious about going back to work, so she asked her husband to text her photos of their baby during the day.

Well, she got her photos. And, fast-forward to today, thousands of people are getting their kicks from an Instagram account called On Adventure With Dad.

Kenny Deuss initially sent his wife, Tineke Vanobbergen, pictures of their baby, Alix, doing regular baby things: sleeping, eating, drooling, et cetera. Then came the boredom — and creativity.

Soon he was photoshopping pictures of Alix doing more worrisome things: sitting up by herself, perching atop a cliff, using a power drill.

Now Alix is 2 and has a 5-month-old sister who has also made her Instagram debut. Deuss shares new photos with his legion of fans every Tuesday. For example: