Talking Points

A pro-vaccination mural in Kolkata. PHOTO: Rupak de Chowdhuri / Reuters
  1. Coronavirus infection rates dropped sharply around the world
  2. Delays continued to result in wasted vaccines in Europe and beyond
  3. The UK green-lit a trial to infect volunteers with Covid-19
  4. Japan's Olympic committee selected Seiko Hashimoto to replace Mori
  5. Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai was arrested again
  6. 22-year-old Disha Ravi was snared in India's crackdown on activists
  7. Biden passed the buck to Congress on forgiving student loans
  8. South Carolina's governor signed a draconian abortion ban into law
  9. Economists warned of a bubble as Bitcoin crossed $50,000
  10. Secessionist parties won a majority of seats in Catalan elections

Deep Dive

An energy crisis in Texas brings home the threat of climate change. PHOTO: Getty

As climate change upends the best (and worst) laid plans of America's leaders, parochialism, pride, and power are clashing. And in Texas, a question has emerged: is independence worth freezing to death in your living room for?

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice

200 million people were placed under weather alerts in North America this week as Winter Storm Uri swept down from the Arctic. The blast of cold air blanketed Canada, a majority of the United States, and even northern Mexico in snow and ice. Just as in California's summer of blackouts, extreme temperatures pushed electricity grids beyond their capacity.

This icy disaster has a typically American flavour to it. In snap-frozen Portland, a supermarket threw perishable goods into dumpsters after power cuts killed refrigeration units. A crowd of people gathered, eager to make use of the produce which was now being well-preserved in sub-zero air. This, apparently, was against the rules, so the police were called in to guard the dumpsters full of food against the hungry horde. There are some legal and food-safety issues that come into play, but it's hard to hear this story and not wonder whether this is indeed the best allocation of state resources in such a crisis, and in the world's richest country no less.

But for all the social-media-ready outrage Oregonians could muster, no state can hold a candle to Texas (which this week was grasping onto its own candle with frosty fingers).

Don't mess with Texas

At least 25 people have died since Saturday - in uncontrollable freeway pileups, or simply freezing to death in homes without power and heating. On Tuesday, four million Texans woke up to blackouts. Water supplies are running low across the state. Many people can't boil the snow because they lack fuel. The situation is dire – one family was forced to crowdsource firewood to stay alive. One furniture chain opened its stores to people who had lost power and heat; a thoughtful act of community leadership that some of the largest churches in the state are yet to follow. Animal sanctuaries and zoos are struggling to keep their charges breathing, though there was one hopeful story among the frigid despair: 3,500 endangered sea turtles were saved after a drastic intervention.

The Lone Star State is truly on its own. Like most countries (or in this case, states) that are born of land-grabs and violence, Texas is pathologically independent-minded. This independence extends all the way to the electricity board. In the contiguous 48 American states there are three power grids : the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and Texas. Their desire to avoid federal oversight has led to a situation where there are no cross-border transmission lines or connectors. Texas also happens to be one of the most poorly-regulated electricity markets in the hemisphere. Former governor Rick Perry suggested that Texans would be willing to endure far longer than three days without power "to keep federal government out of their business". An archetypal display of neoliberal policy dovetailing neatly with nativist polity.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott and GOP figures in the statehouse have been lambasted for their (lack of) response to the crisis. They, in turn, have attempted to deflect all criticism onto the state grid regulator Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Abbott even went further, blaming the grid failure on wind turbines that had frozen stiff. On one level (a very low one) he is correct; many Texan facilities have not 'winterised' their turbines. One another, much more profound level, his was a fabrication of historic proportions. It is the gas, coal, and nuclear plants that failed en masse as pipes froze. On Monday, thermal power plants lost 30 gigawatts of capacity compared to just 4.5 gigawatts from wind. Further confounding matters, four of the largest oil refineries conceded that it will take weeks before they can repair the damage.

Enter Senator Ted Cruz. The dappled Senator from Texas, who has proven susceptible to the odd foot-related mouth injury in the past, managed to focus an entire state's frustration onto himself by absconding to Cancun with his family. Images of his escape were posted across social media and Cruz was eventually harangued into returning. That private group chat messages about the holiday were being shared with the media shows just how low an estimation Cruz holds, even among his own friends.

We hate to sound like a broken record...

But this is without a doubt the result of anthropogenic climate change. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. In January, a spike of heat weakened the vortex of winds that keep extreme-low temperatures up around the North Pole. There was nothing else to stop it flowing south. One meteorologist put it thus , "As the old saying goes, there is nothing between the Arctic and Dallas but a barbed wire fence."

A senior official from ERCOT explained that "[the disruption was] well beyond the design parameters for a typical, or even an extreme, Texas winter..." Did you hear that? That muffled sound was climate scientists the world over screaming "we told you so" into their pillows. The fact that our environment is increasingly violent and unpredictable still manages to elude a great many of America's politicians, regulators, and civil servants. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday that those who do not acknowledge that climate change is causing deep freezes show "complete ignorance".

Politicians will have to use their imaginations – admittedly a tall order – to envisage the worst ravages of climate change. Expecting and preparing for mere incremental deterioration is negligence. But the problem is that ignorance and negligence are not unwanted byproducts, they are now features of a political philosophy that seeks to dispel climate change as a threat. Texas is, of course, also the oil capital of America. Consider this: federal regulators warned Texas in 2011 that its grid would fail in an intense cold-snap. A decade ago.


Worldlywise

Cheers, Mark! PHOTO: AFP

I read the news today, oh boy!

We shudder to think how many inches of the Wrap we've spent exploring the strategic missteps, callous disregard, malign influence, and wilful ignorance of Facebook and its leadership team. There are simply too many ills to list in any form other than the most truncated rap-sheet : fake news, tax-avoidance, being party to genocide, massive data breaches, the mistreatment of moderators, ad inflation, polarisation, Cambridge Analytica...

One facet of Facebook that we at inkl pay particular attention to is its relationship with news publishers . With a user base of nearly 3b humans, Facebook offers publishers an incomparable opportunity to reach readers. But Facebook's ability to translate the interests, habits, and content of those users into micro-targeted audiences for advertisers also presents an incomparable threat to publishers' advertising revenue. Put simply, Facebook (and Google) offer far more effective advertising than traditional media does.

And by the way, Facebook benefits from publishers too: by having a never-ending stream of news content to keep users entertained and engaged. Not only that, Facebook also derives value from people communicating with each another on the platform. It doesn't matter whether they're arguing or agreeing. So Facebook can use partisan news – topics to argue about – to create a feedback loop of indoctrination that produces greater dependence among its users, and in extremis, the likes of QAnon.

But we digress, the Australian government has created a new media code that requires platforms like Facebook and Google to enter into commercial partnerships with publishers for the right to display the news. Google said yes, Facebook said adios. On Thursday, the world's largest social media network blocked all (or, nearly all) of the news in Australia. It also managed to block major scientific bodies, the meteorology bureau, and all manner of local and national charities. Facebook helped create a new model (and a new mess) for news distribution. Now it's dusting its hands of it in one country, and... let's just say this could go viral .

One unheralded winner from all of this is your extremely-online-possibly-QAnon Australian second-cousin. He may finally emerge from his twisted iteration of Plato's cave and see the world as it really is.

Priya Ramani, victorious. PHOTO: Associated Press

Protected predators and gilded cages

The corridors of power have a habit of swallowing the careers and livelihoods of women navigating them. This week, a triptych of abuse in inner sancta.

First, to India, where a powerful newspaper editor and politician lost a defamation case against a journalist whom he had sexually assaulted during a job interview. Priya Ramani made the accusation in 2017 against MJ Akbar, the founder of several Indian newspapers and cabinet member of the BJP government. The charge was met with denials, and a defamation suit, which has dragged on for over two years. But even deploying all the power that politicians can wield (including bringing 97 lawyers to court for his first submission) failed to move Ramani. In fact, her bravery paved the way for 20 other women to also come forward with allegations against Akbar.

The Australian political sphere was electrified by the revelation that a staffer for the ruling conservative party was raped by a colleague in the office of the federal defence minister in 2019. The victim, Brittany Higgins, explained an all-too-familiar story, that she was made to feel like she'd have to quit her job as the sexual assault might become a 'political issue'. Years on, spurred by other damning revelations of sexual misconduct in the government, Higgins has now lifted the lid on a deeper scandal: that Prime Minister Scott Morrison's office had – contrary to public statements – known about the incident at the time. Morrison has dug in on the denials, provoking a significant backlash at his insensitivity. And now senior journalists have revealed that the government is backgrounding the media to sully the names of Higgins and her now partner.

And lastly, to the Emirate of Dubai – the heavily-airbrushed heart of consumerist excess and wealth. In 2018 the daughters of the Emir of Dubai (and prime minister of the UAE) fled their extremely powerful and abusive father. They made it as far as the Indian ocean on a yacht before Indian commandos – acting on official request of the UAE – stormed the vessel and dragged them to their gilded cage. One, Princess Latifa, managed to smuggle out a video this week in which she describes being held hostage under guard. She explicitly fears for her life and said she "would never see the sun again". That our leaders can shake the hands of such a coercive and controlling man is emblematic of how domestic violence is tolerated the world over.


The best of times

As Welsh as rarebit. PHOTO: Shutterstock

Solving Stonehenge

900 years ago, Geoffrey of Monmouth told of a vast stone circle called the ‘ Giants’ Dance ’ which was transported from Ireland and rebuilt in England as Stonehenge. Though a large portion of Geoffrey’s claims are untrue, a new discovery reveals a sliver of truth in one. This week archaeologists uncovered a vast stone circle identical to Stonehenge - except it’s in Wales, 140 miles away. It has the same diameter and unusual cross-section, and it’s three miles away from the bluestone quarry thought to be the monument’s source.

Robot renewable repairs

As the world moves to renewable energy (not you, Texas), a new set of problems has emerged. For example, the construction and maintenance of offshore wind turbines can be detrimental to surrounding ecosystems. But there is now a solution: jellyfish-inspired underwater robots. The technology mimics the propulsion method used by the extremely-efficient moon jellyfish , which ingests and expels water to move itself. As a result, the bot is both agile and energy-saving - so it can repair offshore wind turbines without hurting real jellyfish.


The worst of times

A map of 1930s Atlanta. PHOTO: Richmond University

Heat and pollution, accorded by race

Climate-induced heat and pollution are affecting America’s children before they’re even born. Even worse, Black and Latino people of colour are disproportionately affected due to systemic racism . Poorer neighbourhoods - usually populated by people of colour - are 20°F hotter than richer, whiter suburbs. This is due to outdated, racist city designs placing more asphalt, less trees, and green spaces in areas populated by Black and Latino people. As a result, their babies are more likely to suffer low birth weights, or even preterm- and still-births.

Spitting bars lands you behind bars in Spain

This week, Spain became the latest country to crackdown on protests against lèse-majesté laws. Protests began in several cities following rapper Pablo Hasel’s arrest on Tuesday. He is accused of insulting former King Juan Carlos I. Hasel evaded arrest by hiding in a Catalan university, which was subsequently stormed by authorities. Once protests broke out later that day, riot police used rubber bullets and batons against the demonstrators. So far, 50 have been arrested and at least 60 injured.


Weekend Reading

The image

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover stuck its landing after its 200 million kilometre journey from Earth. With Chinese and Emirati probes circling overhead, Mars is, for the first time in quite a while, quite busy. Photograph supplied by NASA.

The quote

“Mari stop sending werid [sic] images in the groupchat!”

Naomi Osaka , having comprehensively knocked Serena Williams out of the Australian Open, appended her camera-lens victory signature with a message for older sister Mari. Not just a superb athlete – funny too.

The numbers

23%

- The percentage of species of freshwater fish endangered because of us.

$8,700,000,000,000

- The total value of shares, bonds and assets under BlackRock's management. This week the world's largest investor stated that all companies it invests in are expected to disclose their carbon emissions . Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

The headline

"Life Is Tough for Teenage Parasites" The Atlantic .

The special mention

The Russian scientists who are just begging to star as Patient Zero in the next global pandemic. Please stop drilling into the permafrost – please leave the prehistoric viruses where they are.

A few choice long-reads

  • It was once delivery drivers and odd-job workers. Now gig working is coming for millions more American jobs. Businessweek investigates the implications of California's contractor laws.
  • America is stuck with a carbon-intensive economy and devastating blackouts. The Economist discovers how to kill two birds with one stone.
  • 'Sex testing' is an extraordinary and unacceptable burden to place on athletes. Foreign Policy dives into one of sports most contentious issues.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting