FBI probes bomb threats against HBCUs; campuses reopen after no explosives are found

More than 20 FBI field offices around the nation are investigating a series of bomb threats characterized as “hate crimes” against Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and unidentified “houses of worship” but have found no explosives at the sites, the agency announced Wednesday.

The statement did not say whether the threatened houses of worship, like the HBCUs, are predominantly Black.

“These threats are being investigated as racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism and hate crimes,” the FBI announced Wednesday from Washington, D.C. “Although at this time no explosive devices have been found at any of the locations, the FBI takes all threats with the utmost seriousness, and we are committed to thoroughly and aggressively investigating these threats.”

Also Wednesday, NBC News reported an FBI official had identified six “tech-savvy” students as persons of interest in the investigation.

The announcement comes the day after multiple campuses around the nation were targeted with bomb threats on Monday and Tuesday. It was the latest in a string of incidents after an initial report of threats Jan. 5.

The campuses impacted this week include Howard University, in Washington, D.C.; Spelman College, Fort Valley State University, and Albany State University, all in Georgia; Bethune-Cookman University and Edward Waters University, both in Florida; Xavier University and Southern University and A&M College, both in Louisiana; Morgan State University and Coppin State University in Maryland; Harris-Stowe State University in Missouri; Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College, both in Arkansas; Kentucky State University; and five HBCUs in Mississippi, according to news reports and postings by the educational institutions.

NC Central University in Durham also received a bomb threat in January prompting a temporary evacuation of its campus.

Prominent figures including U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both Georgia Democrats, condemned the threats.

“Over the last 48 hours, I have communicated with the presidents of Georgia’s HBCUs, as well as leadership at the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation], to ensure my office is fully supporting local, state and federal efforts to protect these institutions,” Ossof said in a statement released Wednesday. “I will work to ensure the U.S. Department of Justice is fully engaged in the investigation of these terrorist threats.”

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Warnock, who graduated from Morehouse, tweeted Tuesday: “Deeply upsetting that as we begin Black History Month, more HBCUs in Georgia and across the country received bomb threats today. I’m actively monitoring this situation and working with federal law enforcement agencies to address these potential dangers facing our HBCUs.”

Warnock, who is Black, and Ossof, who is Jewish, upset Republican incumbents in special elections on Jan. 4, 2021, resulting in Democrats narrowly taking control of the U.S. Senate.

Stacey Abrams, who is running for Georgia governor and an HBCU alum, tweeted: “Beacons of heavenly light, undaunted by the fight.’ My thoughts are with the students, staff and faculty of my alma mater Spelman College and w/Albany State + every #HBCU targeted in GA or around the nation. Our students should not have to learn in fear.”

Most of the colleges and universities announced precautionary lockdowns when the threats were made but were open again Wednesday after investigators and bomb-sniffing dogs said the campuses were safe, according to local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies.

Southern University at Baton Rouge was among the campuses that extended emotional support to rattled students, staff and parents following the “heinous” acts of intimidation.

“To the SUBR Community: Our campus community, like other HBCUs, has been the target of a heinous bomb threat. Know that any heightened anxiety and hypervigilance is normal and that your University Counseling Center is here to help you through it,” the university tweeted.

Florida A&M University in Tallahassee also posted messages of support.

“Our hearts go out to our fellow #HBCUs that have received bomb threats today. #HBCUs were created to be a safe space for minorities in a country that didn’t think we deserved an education. We are saddened by the threats to bomb or ruin this safe haven,” FAMU tweeted.

Thompson, who also chairs the U.S. House special committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the nation’s Capitol, suggested Tuesday that the threats against the Black educational facilities are part of “the dynamic terrorism threat landscape” that has emerged in the United States. The Homeland Security Committee hosted a virtual hearing on the subject Wednesday morning.

“The spate of bomb threats against Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in recent days is incredibly disturbing and disheartening. It is not lost on me that these threats are targeting African American educational institutions at a time when we are observing Black History Month,” Thompson said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“Moreover, this rash of threats against HBCUs puts further strain on campuses and communities that were already under great stress, as they try to operate safely during the pandemic,” Thompson stated. He pledged to ensure that federal agencies investigate the threats and provide HBCU leaders with “the answers they deserve.”

Sonel Shropshire, president of the National Association of HBCU Students and Alumni, based in Lancaster, California, told the Phoenix that disruption and intimidation are likely the goals of the parties who made the threats but apparently did not set bombs.

“Anything that prohibits access [to the HBCUs] inhibits advancement and development,” Shropshire said, adding that the disruptions in these cases fortunately were minimized. “As far as I know, all of them have reopened.”

Laura Cassels is a reporter with The Florida Phoenix, which is part of the States Newsroom network.

Climate change: Women and families in poor countries most feel the brunt

The two-week climate conference in Glasgow, concluding today, shone a spotlight on the harm climate change inflicts on women and families in the world’s most vulnerable countries.

Women, who often hold lead roles in providing food and health care for their families, are on the front lines, according to advocates participating in panel discussions during the COP26 climate conference. Their communities are feeling climate change most directly — especially sea-level rise that is swallowing small island nations and drought in the Southern Hemisphere.

Projects intended to help these women are falling short, some of these advocates said, because corporations purporting to offset their own climate pollution with green projects in poor nations are not delivering the promised results.

“Often, carbon finance does not really reach small-scale farmers and low-income households that are actually responsible for the emission reductions,” Marcel Spaas, a manager at the nonprofit FairClimateFund, said during a panel discussion on Thursday.

“For example: women in Burkina Faso cooking on improved cook stoves which they construct themselves; the family in India who decides to embrace biogas as a cooking solution; farmers in Peru who do collectively planting trees on community land to support and give themselves a better future; a refugee family in Chad that uses solar cooking to [conserve] their scarce available firewood,” he said.

Jeanette Gurung, founder and executive director of Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management, or WOCAN, said her organization, with 1,400 members in 140 countries, aims to connect those women and their families with financial support.

“[WOCAN’s mission is] to drive new financial resources and support to women’s groups, women’s organizations. This is based on the evidence we’ve seen over the years of the tremendous impact — I would say untapped potential — of women’s groups to deliver outcomes related to forest management, water management, agriculture management with, I would say, no recognition, certainly no support,” she said.

“Women have pretty good ideas of what they need and what their communities are,” Gurung said. “This is women’s empowerment. We’re supporting women’s agency. It’s a way to bring more attention to the critical role that women play in the management and the achievement of success within projects related to climate sectors.”

The FairClimateFund wants governments to require corporations to be transparent about the pollution-offset projects they finance and prove the projects both reduce emissions as promised and help communities protect themselves from climate change, Spaas said.

The projects fall into an area of finance called carbon markets: setting financial value on pollution and offsetting that value with “credits” supporting projects elsewhere that equally reduce pollution.

For developing countries, excessive heat and drought — and, conversely, historic flooding from storms — is depriving them of the use of their land to grow food and provide shelter, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a consortium of climate scientists from around the world, including representatives of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Industrialized countries are responsible for the majority of CO2 emissions. The richest 10 percent of the people cause more than half of the global CO2 emissions. However, the greatest impact of climate change occurs in developing countries. Changing weather patterns, floods, and extreme droughts are a major challenge for countries that are largely dependent on small-scale agriculture,” Spaas said.

Arranging carbon-reducing projects in developing countries has the potential to actually reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and help vulnerable communities become more resilient to climate change, Spaas said, but only under conditions not now in place. Read more

Sports world pledges to cut climate-fueling emissions by half this decade

The National Basketball Association, professional baseball, hockey and soccer teams, international motor sports, tennis pros, surfers, runners and wrestlers are accelerating their campaign to fight climate change.

At events Tuesday and Wednesday at the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, universities, professional and amateur leagues from across the world announced new or intensified pledges to cut climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from their sports in half this decade, starting immediately.

They include the U.S. Tennis Association, Formula E all-electric motorsports, World Surf League, United World Wrestling, NFL Green, the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, and the athletic departments of the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Miami and Ohio State University.

“Few sectors have the power to inspire and the global appeal that sports does. We call on the other sports leaders to follow this lead,” said Prince Albert II of Monaco, chair of sustainability for the International Olympic Committee, speaking at the climate conference.

The sports leagues’ effort acknowledges that major sporting events significantly add pollution to accumulating pollution in Earth’s atmosphere, according to the “Sports for Climate Action” framework established under the United Nations four years ago and accelerated this year at COP 26.

“Few sectors have the power to inspire and the global appeal that sports does. We call on the other sports leaders to follow this lead,” said Prince Albert II of Monaco, chair of sustainability for the International Olympic Committee, speaking at the climate conference.

The World Surf League and more than 200 other sports organizations have pledged to beat climate change. Credit: World Surf League, COP 26

It also recognizes that the degraded climate is flooding sports venues, deteriorating playing surfaces and race tracks, fueling toxic algae blooms that derail outdoor water sports, reducing natural snowfall needed for certain winter sports, and disrupting events with unseasonal heat, cold, rainfall and storms, according to the Sports for Climate Action framework.

“Four years since we launched the Sports for Climate Action framework, more than 280 sports organisations have committed to the overarching objectives of aligning sport with the goals of the Paris agreement [established at COP 21 in 2015],” said UN Climate Change Executive Director Patricia Espinosa at a broadcast from Glasgow.

“The sector eagerly took up the challenge, but also told us that they want to do more and to do it faster. These organisations are now being challenged to reduce emissions 50 percent by 2030 at the latest and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040,” Espinosa said.

Representatives of a few of the sporting organizations spoke at a panel discussion in Glasgow on Wednesday.

“Formula 1 overall reaches over 2 billion people across the world, and it’s that platform that gives us the ability to influence, inform and educate others around the world,” said James Colgate, representing London-based Williams Racing. He said Formula 1 race cars contribute just around 1 percent of the sector’s pollutants, while travel, shipping and construction of infrastructure constitute the vast majority of it.

Colgate said Formula 1 cars have run on hybrid-energy engines since 2009 and that Williams Racing and others are developing clean-energy tracing technology that can be shared with other sectors.

Fiona Morgan, director of purpose and impact at Sail GP – promoting international grand prix sailing races of high-performance catamarans — said her company has placed sustainability at the center of sailing boat manufacturing, business operations, and hosting of events around the world.

“We want the world to be powered by nature,” Morgan said, explaining that participants must adhere to specific green standards and foster sustainable development in underdeveloped countries.

Many signatories of climate-action pledges have or are developing climate-friendly, LEED-certified stadiums and venues built with non-polluting materials and powered by clean energy such as solar. Examples include the Champions Center at Colorado University Boulder and the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, home of the National Hockey League’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken.

Laura Cassels is a reporter for the Florida Phoenix, which first published this report and like NC Policy Watch, is a member of the States Newsroom network.

Does Florida hemp experience raise caution flags for NC?

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

[Editor’s note: As more and more states embrace the idea that hemp could be a financial boon for farmers and entrepreneurs, news from Florida appears to raise some caution flags. The following story from journalist Laura Cassels of the Florida Phoenix reports that the hemp forecast — at least for the sunshine state — appears to have turned cloudy.]

Hemp hype? Some observers fear Florida is setting up small farmers for failure

Hemp — the hip, new superstar of the agriculture world — is getting a lot of buzz within farming and political circles in Florida and nationally. But hemp harvests this fall aren’t matching the hype, portending disaster for small growers while manufacturers and retailers stand to get rich.

Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, has been particularly active in promoting hemp as an alternative for farmers in the Panhandle who suffered devastating crop losses during Hurricane Michael one year ago.

Experience in other states raises questions about whether farmers would be wise to bet the farm on hemp absent more work toward developing production chains and best practices for this crop.

Fried is aware of the risks. “She’s made it a top priority to align all the moving parts to ensure Florida’s hemp program becomes the nation’s best,” said Karol Molinares, the commissioner’s deputy communications director, in a written response to questions raised by the Florida Phoenix.

“There aren’t yet issues here with glut, shortage of contracts, or processing bottlenecks. These types of issues would exist with any newly developing industry. Hemp presents an extraordinary economic opportunity for the farmers you mentioned, who have asked for access to alternative crops like hemp,” she added.

“The department is continuing efforts to establish processing, manufacturing, and retailing capacity, concurrent with cultivation, testing, and other issues,” Molinares said. She supplied no details beyond noting Fried’s hiring of Holly Bell, a former financial adviser to cannabis companies, to lead the hemp program. Neither Fried nor Bell were available for comment.

Meanwhile, Jerry Fankhauser, logistics coordinator for the University of Florida IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project — one of two university-based programs working on the problem — voiced cautious optimism.

“Everyone I see tells me that all the potential growers are doing their homework,” Fankhauser said. But if you can’t tolerate risk, he said, “don’t plant more acres than you can stand to lose.”

The Florida legislature authorized the hemp pilot project at the University of Florida and another at Florida A&M University in 2017. The state is expected to begin issuing hemp cultivation permits in 2020. Following nationwide legalization of hemp in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, Florida authorized hemp farming in the Sunshine State earlier this year. Fried’s agency is developing rules for the program and plans to seek federal approval this fall. Public hearings on the draft rules are set for Friday in Tallahassee and Monday, Oct. 21, in Tampa. The public comment period ends on Oct. 31.

‘At risk of being wasted’

To understand the potential pitfalls, consider Pennsylvania, where hemp is widely cultivated but half of that state’s crop has no buyers and may go to waste, according to Pennsylvania State University’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center, which monitors that state’s hemp growers.

That includes 75 percent of the hemp grown for CBD oil, the non-psychoactive compound derived from hemp and sometimes used in medical applications. The risk is lower for hemp grown for fiber and grain.

Even in North Carolina, no stranger to growing leafy crops, just half of the hemp farmers are under purchase contracts, and about half the crop is expected to be stored at great expense because it can’t be sold this season, according to a Southeast harvest preview published on Oct. 11 by Hemp Industry Daily, a trade magazine. Read more