- A report tallied Xinjiang's infamous detention camps at 380
- North Korea shot and immolated a defector from the South
- Late in the week a US judge frustrated the planned TikTok ban
- Thais took to the streets in the largest protests in decades
- HSBC slumped to a 25-year low on Hong Kong and China woes
- Belarusian president-for-life Lukashenko inaugurated himself
- Tasmania suffered Australia's worst whale beaching event
- The United Nations celebrated its 75th anniversary
- Canada fought a second wave as the US still grappled the first
- Abiy Ahmed faced a new spasm of protest in Ethiopia
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has left behind a towering legacy, distraught following, and an empty seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. What transpires next may overshadow her life's work.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Last week America lost one of its leading judicial lights . Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died aged aged 87 after battling pancreatic cancer for several years. In her wake are a handful of judicial opinions and decisions that have vastly improved the lot of American women, LGBT+ people, and racial minorities. Appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg was just the second woman to sit on the highest court in the land, and maintained a steadfast focus on social justice issues during her 27 year career. Justice Ginsburg has, quite rightfully, always had her fans. But over the last decade she was adopted as the liberal icon 'Notorious RBG' (a moniker she was partial to). All of a sudden, the dour lace-collared bench of justices had a pop star in their ranks.
To her fans, Ginsburg didn't so much practice the law so much as embody it. Her oft-quoted "I dissent" was in response to the Supreme Court allowing the Bush administration to end a manual Florida recount in the disputed 2000 election. A memorable phrase, one that pierced the bubble of civility (and famously opaque culture of the court), but one that could not prevent the recount from being halted. The rest is history.
Ginsburg has laid in state at the Supreme Court all week, an exceptional decision (given the time-limits that typically guide Jewish burials) that has allowed many in Washington to farewell a giant of American jurisprudence. But the solemnity was broken on Thursday when the President Trump and his family visited to pay their respects. The acrimony had seeped in; boos and jeers echoed off the white marble, along with the plaintive demand "honour her wish". That wish – according to her family, her dying one – was that her vacated seat on the Supreme Court not be filled by the sitting president. Trump is planning on filling it as soon as possible (possibly this very weekend). It would tip the court, the arbiter of US constitutional law, 6-3 in favour of conservative justices. The president's intention is crystal clear, "I think this [the election] will end up in the Supreme Court . And I think it's very important that we have nine justices..."
The court is a tool guided by the ideological positions of its constituent justices. Just as Ginsburg helped tilt the court in favour of equal rights and anti-discrimination arguments, a more conservative bench would reflect the ideological trappings of its judges. For example, the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act does not appear long for this world. As we've noted in this column before, the endgame for anti-abortion activists is to challenge Roe v Wade before a sympathetic bench. The withdrawal of that cornerstone legal protection would be a profound regression for many Americans (though many Arkansan and Louisianan women are already denied to access safe and affordable abortions). So to on voter rights, a conservative court may allow the expansion of restrictions that today, in this election, functionally disenfranchise millions of Americans. This, of course, is all speculation, and it is not without precedent that justices have surprised us, but these caveats do not offer much security going forward.
Given the stakes, you'd imagine Democrats are fighting tooth and nail to prevent the passage of Trump's nominee through the Senate. They are, at least in the court of public opinion, but the reality is (despite what the Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have intoned) they have few arrows in their quiver. Narrow as it may be, but the Republican majority in the Senate is final. For a few days Democrats begged moderates across the aisle to vote against any pre-election nominee. A handful (those facing stiff challenges this cycle) even agreed, and for a brief moment it appeared as though Democrats may have been able to sway the deciding vote of Mitt Romney . But Romney is nothing if not a company man, and announced mid-week that he'd confirm a pre-election appointment. Here we see the departure in worldview: the hope that dying wishes and bipartisan supplications may yet hold weight in this late moment of the American republic – and the reality that a simple majority in the upper chamber of Congress trumps all else.
Some quarters have called for an incoming Democratic president to stack the court with several more liberal justices. Indeed, Joe Biden appears headed for victory in November – current polling reveals that as many as 7 Republican Senators may fall – giving the former VP the majority required to change the court. But let's stop here. The Biden campaign may be gaining some voters by repeating "the most progressive agenda" (without providing any policies to evidence the claim), but the late-career re-tooling as a progressive is opportunistic. The idea that the sensible-centrist Biden would radically alter one of America's most important institutions reeks of wishful thinking. And so America must now prepare itself for Republicans winning the ultimate prize: a conservative Supreme Court majority that could last decades.
The other American justice
Speaking of American justice, as America's well-heeled Beltway crowd paid their respects to a liberal icon, a Kentucky court handed down a sentence in the Breonna Taylor case . Reminder: Taylor was the young EMT gunned down in her apartment by police with a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night. Earlier in the year she was just another Black woman killed by police misconduct. And, were it not for the persistent demands of activists, her death would have been consigned to history by coronavirus coverage (and the other devastating slayings of Black men by American police). But in those who paid attention, the protocol lapses by the Taylor's killers spoke to a deeper truth.
And so, against the grain, Taylor's family launched a wrongful death suit against the city of Louisville, Kentucky, and just weeks ago were awarded $16m. But money is not justice, it is a reparation, and so all attention lay on how a Kentucky court would punish the officers responsible for extinguishing a life. A grand jury found that one of the three officers guilty on three counts of "wanton endangerment" – he had fired ten bullets through the windows of her apartment building. Because Taylor's boyfriend had fired the first shot during the encounter (fearing the plainclothes agents were robbers) the attorney general successfully argued that the two other officers who riddled Taylor with bullets were justified in their use of force . Shielded from charges, they face no punishment.
The decision sent Louisville, and dozens of other cities, into a fit of rage and grief . The outpouring of emotion devolved into violent protests – two police were shot overnight – and 120 people were arrested. The side-by-side shows you the two American justices: the incremental pursuit of justice in Washington and the lived experience of unpunished police violence in Black communities.
China promises (a clear view of) the moon
This week we witnessed a huge commitment on climate change. No, it wasn't you, Michigan , but we appreciate it regardless. China, the world's worst polluter, has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Xi Jinping told the United Nations that "humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature". Ignoring the fact that it was phrased as though it was a novel finding, it's hard not to be thankful that China is aiming to bring its ravenous consumption of fossil fuels into line. Such a move may lower the expected temperature rise by as much as 0.2-0.3°C by 2100 . And while that will still leave us a scorching 2.4-2.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it's better than nothing.
Xi outlined a milestone step that is much closer – reaching peak fossil fuel consumption by 2030 in line with its Paris Agreement targets. This caused quite a stir among those who take a keen interest in China's emissions, given that it would require a violent reversal of the current trend. Beijing has helped funnel a fortune into renewables (it's the world's largest installer of renewable projects) but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the subterranean mountains of coal it burns every year. But the painful shift to renewables is a necessary one – as the Tibetan plateau glaciers melt, the water supply to over 600m people (not to mention the majority of China's food bowl) along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers will be endangered.
Such announcements must be taken with a grain of salt, especially when China is doing all it can to boost its position as a leader of the 21st century at America's expense. But even adjusted for cynicism, the it's one to be celebrated.
The Best of Times
In the future our buildings will be made of timber .
The big smoke
The European Union and World Bank have teamed up to tackle an expected jump in emissions from cities in developing nations. Our species' seismic shift toward urbanisation will, by 2050, have added another 2.5b people to our cities. That's on-top of the 70% of our species that already live in them. Creating the tools to manage the growth must be done in years advance. It's not the most visible work on climate change, and it's certainly not the most lauded, but a fund to reduce emissions in developing cities is invaluable work.
The Worst of Times
Not a whale of a time
This week 380 pilot whales died in Australia’s largest mass stranding. 460 whales were beached in total, and despite the best efforts of local conservationists, the majority of the whales died. Of those that were successfully dislodged from the sandbar, some were too weak to be released. Locals had the grim task of euthanising those that couldn't be saved.
An elephantine mystery solved
Between May and June this year, 330 elephants were found dead across Botswana, home to the world’s largest population of elephants. This week, scientists found the cause: a neurotoxin produced by cyanobacteria in water . Researchers are still unsure as to why only elephants are dying from the toxin, and at a loss of how to prevent more casualties.
"I don't think we've had any focused effort to keep QAnon off the platform . "
– Reddit CTO Chris Stowe tries to explain that the nebulous fringe-turned-core conspiracy group has disappeared off the front page of the internet . Bravo – but how? We hope Facebook is taking notes.
- A handful of the world’s biggest banks have made a habit of knowingly transferring cash – a cool $2t of it – from oligarchs, terrorists, and criminals. Known as the FinCEN Files, the leaked documents reveal 2,100 cases of suspicious activity between 1999 and 2017, involving a roll call of some of our favourite unsavoury characters: Jho Low, Paul Manafort, and Lamine Diack. Despite the magnitude of the sum, the findings represent less than 0.02% of all suspicious activity filed between the period, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
- Another document leaked this week claimed queues of 7,000 trucks could form at the border when the Brexit transition period expires on December 31. The ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ is based upon the sheer amount of new paperwork hauliers will need to cross the Channel. Without said paperwork, they could face delays of up to 2 days – before ever leaving the island itself. Let's hope the 100 days left is enough time to get ready!
"Landmine detection rat's 'lifesaving bravery' earns him a gold medal" – The Evening Standard . Sure, you can laugh at the tiny gold medal this very large rat has been awarded, but given Magawa (we're on a first name basis) has helped uncover 39 landmines, he's may well have done more to help humankind than you have.
The special mention
While some rodents are trying to save humankind, some humans are trying to snuff themselves out once and for all. Our special mention is being awarded to all the individuals who have bought tickets on ' flights to nowhere '. These commercial airlines take-off, fly about for a few hours burning their way through a tank of jet-fuel, and then land again in the same destination. If this takes your fancy, please refer to the environment section of the inkl app.
A few choice long-reads
- The number of HIV-positive soldiers in the US military is rising every year. A positive test results in an automatic discharge. Bloomberg Businessweek follows the unlikely court case to allow HIV-positive soldiers to be recognised by the country they're sworn to defend.
- The novel coronavirus Covid-19 has posed devilish problems to governments. When do you lockdown? What is the tradeoff between economic damage and the human toll? The Economist dives straight into what governments are getting wrong about the pandemic.
- Some insects, when cooked just right, are perfect in a nice ragù. Others (the author promises) taste similar to little pumpkin seeds. If your gag reflex can be controlled, the Financial Times will help expand your palate with the growing business of insect protein.