Talking Points

At least 30 dead in Indonesia's capital. PHOTO: Willy Kurniawan / Reuters
  1. Jakarta was struck by deadly floods on New Year's Day
  2. Hong Kong marked January 1 with huge street protests
  3. Extremist group al-Shabab killed 81 in a Mogadishu bombing
  4. Bibi Netanyahu formally requested immunity from prosecution
  5. Pope Francis apologised for slapping one of his flock
  6. Mitch McConnell was criticised for prejudging impeachment
  7. China jailed rogue geneticist He Jiankui for three years
  8. The first China-built Teslas rolled off the production line
  9. Pacific nation Palau banned reef-harming sunscreens
  10. American health authorities banned most e-cigarette pods

Deep Dive

Australia is burning. PHOTO: Dale Appleton / DELWP

It's often said that the first day of the New Year sets the standard and mood for the year to come. If this is so, the catastrophic fires burning all over Australia portend a dark 2020 indeed.

Evacuation by ship

Bushfires have blotted out the sun in much of Australia's south-east, turning skies blood-red during the day. The environment was described as apocalyptic by the exhausted residents of Mallacoota who'd been evacuated to a naval vessel waiting offshore. Firefighters in the region are defending larger towns and human lives – there is simply no way to save private property or abandoned hamlets when the fire-front moves an incredible 25 kilometres overnight. Barely an hour's drive to the north a whole swathe of some of the finest national parks and holiday spots are being cleared of tourists and locals ahead of unpredictable fires whipped along by strong winds. In December it was Sydney wreathed in smoke, this week it was Melbourne.

There are simply too many fires burning in Australia to do justice to each of them. Where ought one's attentions rest when national treasures like the Blue Mountains, Kosciuszko National Park , Lake Gordon, and Kangaroo Island are all alight? To view an online bushfire map is to see a continent alight; so close together are the digitally rendered warning symbols that the eastern seaboard is mostly obscured. Over the past seven months – yes, Australia began burning in the middle of the southern winter – over 5 million hectares of bush, field and town have been incinerated. This is 1 million more hectares than were lost in the devastating California fire season of 2018, and utterly dwarfs the loss of South America's rainforest fires.

The scale is difficult to grasp. The nation of Belgium could fit inside the fire grounds burnt so far. The Gosper's Mountain Fire alone has turned half a million hectares of New South Wales forest to char. Many of these fires are burning in the well-treed hills and mountains of the Great Dividing Range. And it is not just one, but many distinct geographical highlands that separate Australia's largely coastal dwelling population from the interior - they run for a good 3,500km, so there is a lot still left to go up in smoke. A common refrain of those who wish to downplay the causes and effects of these fires has been that Australia is built to burn. It is true that a great deal of the native flora has adapted to regenerate and reseed from bushfire. But not like this. Some forests will take a century to recover – others in tropical Queensland and temperate Tasmania never will. And the fauna have none of the same defences as eucalyptus trees: it is understood that half a billion animals have been killed.

Evacuation of leadership

There are many factors contributing to the severity of this fire season. A drought in the east, soon to enter its fourth year, has left forests parched and primed to ignite. Adverse weather patterns have drastically narrowed the window in which rural fire services can conduct hazard-reducing back-burns, resulting in more kindle for the fire. Strong and unpredictable winds have billowed flames in every direction without a moment's notice. Spot-fires have been reported up to 15 kilometres ahead of the fire edge. And, perhaps most alarming, several bushfires are intense enough to have created their own weather systems and can send dry lightning out ahead to start more fires. While climate change cannot be linked to any individual fire (indeed, many fires have been lit by arsonists), it is unscientific, dangerous and contemptible to suggest that the changing climate has not had a system-wide negative effect .

Given this, it is unsurprising that Australia's ruling conservative government has been hounded for its studied inaction on climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison went for a tour of fire-damaged areas and was met with stony silence and anger from many locals. Here is a leader who has flirted with climate denial, waved a lump of coal about in parliament, and presided over Australia's internationally-condemned double-dealing on the Paris Accord targets. Little wonder then that in emergency centres hollow-eyed fire fighters refused to shake his hand , and residents who'd lost their homes and livelihoods harangued him. Even after this humiliating affair, the Prime Minister has said that he will not budge on Australia's emissions reduction targets. Armed with 'thoughts and prayers', and offering little more than self-serving handshakes for the television cameras, Scott Morrison is a national leader quickly turning pariah.

Compare Morrison to Angela Merkel , who offered this in her New Year's address:

"At 65, I am at an age which I personally will no longer experience all the consequences of climate change that will occur if politicians do not act. It will be our children and grandchildren who have to live with the consequences of what we do or refrain from doing today. That is why I use all my strength to ensure that Germany makes its contribution – ecologically, economically, socially – to getting climate change under control."

One would be mistaken for thinking that it was Germany in the midst of a catastrophic environmental disaster.


Worldlywise

Protesters at the US embassy. PHOTO: AP

New Year, old foe

Simmering tensions between the United States and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq were raised to a boil last weekend when US forces bombed a camp belonging to Kataib Hezbollah. The strike killed 25 and may well have kicked off a new chapter of destabilisation in the long-suffering country. Iran supported groups like the Kataib Hezbollah and the vaunted Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in their campaign against ISIS in Iraq. And they have only grown since. After the air raid, the supporters of such militias marched on the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone and proceeded to torch as many outbuildings as they could. To the surprise of many Americans and few locals, the Iraqi guards outside the embassy did not place themselves between an angry mob and the facility under their protection.

If only it had ended there: with dozens of Iran-backed fighters dead (and scores more maimed) and nothing but America's property and pride wounded. Instead, US President Donald Trump signed off on the killing of Iran's top military commander, Qassem Soleimani , who had arrived at Baghdad airport yesterday. A missile slammed into his convoy, killing four. This is something of a coup for the architects of America's assassination program, who have long sought the wily Quds Force commander. Soleimani had, after all, been in charge of Iran's clandestine external operations for two decades. If one thing is for certain, it's that Trump has guaranteed an escalation from an extremely capable foe.

Scott-free. PHOTO: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

Not quite the Great Escape

As Australia burnt and Iraq roiled, at least Carlos Ghosn had an enjoyable New Year's celebration. January 1st found the disgraced former automotive executive in the country of his origin, Lebanon, rather than Japan, where he was meant to be under house arrest. Yes, in perhaps the least predictable development of this saga, a multi-billionaire used a private security company to thwart the inconvenient laws of a country and escape. Japan's criminal justice system is famously tough (Ghosn described it as "rigged" ) but in fairness to the Japanese there aren't too many criminals who are complimentary of their captors.

Early reports (mostly from the famously breathless Lebanese media) suggested that Ghosn was squirrelled out of his home in the instrument case of a visiting band. Unfortunately this detail – the only interesting part of the tale – proved false: security cameras show Ghosn walking out of his Tokyo home, never (presumably) to return. From that point it was all money doing the talking: chartered business flights to Istanbul and another on to Beirut. On arrival there was a hush-hush meeting with the country's president, Michael Aoun, who is now in the hilarious position of having met an international fugitive for whom his own intelligence services have received an Interpol red notice .

All in all, the same old story: money and connections trump the law nine times out of ten.


The Best of Times

Britain's future. PHOTO: Peter Byrne / PA

British renewables ascend

The United Kingdom's National Grid has released its figures for 2019 and the results ought to be celebrated. Renewable power generation (that is, wind, solar and nuclear) accounted for a full 48.5% of Britain's output , beating the declining fossil fuels (coal and gas) share of 43%. Onwards and upwards.

Untangling dementia

Two of the major causes of dementia – brain plaque and nanofiber tangles – have been successfully treated in tests on mice. With extensive animal tests passed, the next step is testing humans . If the results are similarly positive then this will be the first real stride taken to combat Alzheimer's in those predisposed to the terrible disease.


The Worst of Times

Revanchism is alive and well in Ankara. PHOTO: Anadolu

Imperial follies

Turkey's Erdogan is intent on promoting himself from Pasha to Sultan. Many within his country are concerned that since the fall of the Ottoman empire there has been no meaningful Muslim power to countervail the repeated intrusions by foreign militaries (see: Iraq, above). While there is some merit to this, the desire to rebuild a territorial empire seems neither plausible nor positive. Still, Erdogan is gearing up for his second military intervention in as many years, this time in Libya (yes, a former Ottoman possession). Everything old is new again in 2020.

Vexatious litigants

Ride-share giant Uber and on-demand delivery company Postmates filed a lawsuit on Monday to block California's incoming protections for gig-economy workers. That tech companies have lobbied so fervently against such protections should be a clarion call for the surprisingly-high 35% of America's workforce that is now classified as working in the gig-economy.


Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"Association with killings, modern slavery, child labour and environmental degradation is becoming an increasing risk when dealing with Michoacán suppliers and growers, especially when establishing traceability is increasingly hard."

Analysts describe the risks associated with Mexico's newest conflict resource : avocados.

Headline of the week

''Hard cheese? French chef loses court case over lost Michelin star" Reuters .

Special mention

Without a doubt our special mention for the first week of 2020 goes to Ghislaine Maxwell , the madam who arranged for children to be delivered to high profile paedophile clients, and is still on the run despite the fact that she is the key witness in the Epstein saga, and the fact that the FBI has been trying to hunt her down. New allegations suggest she is being hidden is safe houses by powerful friends. Is she dead or has she become the Joseph Kony of the new decade?

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome back to our first Wrap of the year. As always, feel free to send your comments and suggestions to Tom via his Twitter account below. 2020 is shaping up to be a banner year for inkl and we want to hear from you as much as possible.

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting