Saturday, the 23rd of January

Talking Points

He just won't stop. PHOTO: Getty
  1. Aleksei Navalny continued attacking Putin from behind bars
  2. Germany's CDU chose Armin Laschet as Merkel's successor
  3. Giuseppe Conte just – just – clung to power in the Italian senate
  4. While most countries contracted, China grew 2.3% in 2020
  5. Jack Ma resurfaced after his Beijing-imposed 'quiet time'
  6. Samsung chief Jay Y Lee went back to prison for 30 months
  7. An American influencer caused a furore over gentrification in Bali
  8. Ghislaine Maxwell's trial was interrupted... by QAnon supporters
  9. WhatsApp privacy changes sent people flocking to Telegram
  10. Tunisians clashed with authorities on the Arab Spring anniversary

Deep Dive

The Biden agenda is the world's agenda. PHOTO: AP

President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr is faced with more than his fair share of challenges. All of them pale in significance to climate change.

Inaugurations and ice core samples

When George Washington was sworn in as America's first president in 1789, our species had not overrun the planet. Though the antebellum air was wreathed with wood- and coal-smoke (gas lighting was still a year off), an unspoiled, unending firmament was there to absorb it. Ice-core samples show that for a blessed few more years atmospheric carbon dioxide remained stable at 283 parts per million (PPM). But 45 presidents later, Joe Biden has been inaugurated in a year when the CO2 PPM will likely rise to 417. The industrial and power-generation technologies of the last three centuries have imperilled life in this one. The Atlantic, still as wide as imagination allows, is absorbing the heat equivalent of several underwater atomic detonations, every second. The vagaries of our worsening climate are making dust-farmers out of croppers in the Southern Great Plains states of America, incinerating its West Coast, and causing floods that inundate suburb after suburb in coastal towns like Miami or Charleston. If Biden expects the 100th or even the 50th POTUS to rule over anything more than an inland empire that is shrunken, devastated, and embattled by the elements, the time for action is now. He has every chamber of government in hand, and the era for excuses has long expired.

So, Joe: what's the plan?

The first 100 days, the next 100 years

Plenty, as it happens. True to his campaign promise, Biden promptly rejoined the Paris Agreement. The accord, as you will recall, was a pledge by nations to restrict global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) concluded that the path to the agreed goal was for countries to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an interim target of a fully decarbonised energy sector by 2035. And each country produced a set of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to prescribe how it would do this. The problem is that the US NDCs (26-28% below 2005 emissions by 2025) were not only weak, but also aren’t on track to be achieved. This means new, stricter, economy-wide targets are expected to be announced at Biden's upcoming climate summit.

The new administration is also making short shrift of Trump's anti-climate agenda. Permits for the Keystone XL pipeline have been rescinded, loosened vehicle fuel-economy regulations have been tightened, rules for methane-leaking gas infrastructure have been revisited, National Monument land will been returned from prospectors hands, and bans on Alaska drilling have been reinstated. These are all laudable steps to make up for lost ground. But they won’t be enough.

The necessary change can't all be delivered by diktat from the Oval Office. Legislation is needed to boost funding for climate science research, deliver tax-breaks for electric vehicle purchases, establish loan guarantees for solar- and wind-powered facilities, and increase subsidies for renewable energy projects. Measures like this can only be delivered with the imprimatur of Congress. The president's advisors have suggested that up to $1tr may be needed for the plan; to put this in perspective, the whole world spent $500b on transitioning away from fossil fuels in 2020. But don’t expect sticker shock.

The Democrats, stung by earlier defeats, are not likely to provide their opponents with the large target of a single climate bill. Instead, there will be a little tweak here and a little target there baked into every proposed law going forward: starting with the huge coronavirus relief bill. Keep an eye out next week when the White House unveils its 'omnibus' climate directives; a mandate to focus all relevant agencies of the federal government on climate change.


It all began in Burkina Faso. PHOTO: AFP

The Great Green Wall

There will always be a new trend, phenomenon, or conflict to grab your attention. A disorienting blitz of noise is an unwelcome byproduct of the age of instantaneous communication, massive population growth, and globalisation. Journalism which is built on immediacy and novelty has in some regards become a victim of its own success. Consider this next story an antidote.

Degraded ecosystems and worsening climate conditions are pushing the Sahara further south every year. What would it take to halt the seemingly-inexorable spread of Earth's largest non-polar desert? It turns out that the most effective tools are the trees (drought-resistant acacias, Baobabs and Moringas) native to the at-risk area. Their roots reach deep underground to firm up soil against erosion and carry moisture up to the surface. That moisture, as well as the shade and nutrients from the trees themselves, provide a welcome environment for more shrubs, pollinators, and trees. Today a mass-planting is underway, stretching 7,400km from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. But this is not an initiative started in January 2021 – construction (if we can call it that) of this living barrier was begun back in 2007. The 'Great Green Wall' will eventually pass from Senegal to Djibouti, comprising 100m hectares of revitalised and revegetated land.

Some have sneered at the slow pace ; officially just 4% is complete, though this figure excludes the 12m hectares planted in Ethiopia which would push the number closer to 20%. In any case, as the Chinese proverb says, "the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now". Yes, the project will take years to complete. And in that time millions of news stories will appear and disappear from the zeitgeist. But it's heartening to know that amidst all that impermanence there will continue to be thousands of people in over a dozen countries planting a better future for the Sahel.

It is, after all, not just a project to protect the arable land and townships. African nations have suffered gravely at the hands of extractive powers – Eastern and Western, old and new – and been patronised by paternalistic foreigners. But this is an African solution to an African problem, and one that finds its genesis in the anti-imperial Burkinabè hero and president Thomas Sankara. The revolutionary leader oversaw the planting of 10m trees in Burkina Faso in the 1980s, to halt the ever-encroaching Sahara. In his words, "Step by step, tree by tree, we will create this great park of 10 million trees. Even if it takes 10 million years."

Who's next? Please don't let it be the young. PHOTO: Reuters

Vaccine watch

Last week the US saw its worst rates for new cases, hospitalisations, and deaths. This week, all three numbers dropped . While this was mostly a result of post-holiday reporting delays, it's hard not to feel as though a page has turned in America. The new president has promised to "move heaven and earth" to get 100m of his countryfolk vaccinated in the next 100 days . First in line are the healthcare workers and long-term residents of aged-care facilities. Then, frontline essential workers and those aged 75+. After that, it's the 65-74-year-olds, those aged 16-64 with underlying medical conditions, and other essential workers. Of course, if you're young, wealthy, and well-connected, there are probably ways to skip the queue.

Over in Europe, and around the world, a ripple of alarm sparked calls for investigation. Early in the week the Norwegian government expressed concern at the growing number of deaths among elderly recipients of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Some 42,000 'high-risk' Norwegians had been administered a first dose – the elderly (75+) being a key demographic in the group – and there were 30 recorded fatalities among them. News of the fatalities spread fast - faster than the confirmation that those who perished had been frail and suffering from serious health problems. Stories circulated about recipients experiencing fever, nausea, and diarrhoea, but all of these were known side-effects of mRNA vaccines . That didn't stop countless stories (ranging from hysterical to outright misinformation) from raking the globe. Talk shows, newspaper columns, and social media posts were all awash in them. But it's mostly noise. Norway's health authorities are sticking with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

If you were to ask the chief of the World Health Organisation, he'd recommend not giving that particular vaccine to the elderly in many circumstances. But not for the reasons you think. Tedros Anhanom Ghebreyesus used an executive meeting this week to slam various unnamed developed countries for vaccinating healthier adults while the elderly and healthcare workers in poor nations went without. "Just 25 doses have been in one lowest income country – not 25 million, not 25,000 – just 25. I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure", Tedros said.

The best of times

Unburdened by Western packs – they climbed. PHOTO: Nimsdai PR / Guardian

Peak performance

This week – in the depths of winter – a team of Sherpas scaled a peak only ever bested in summer. Ascending K2, the world's second-tallest mountain , was thought impossible in the whipping colder months: temperatures can drop to -60°C with winds reaching 125m/h. What is doubly pleasing is that Sherpas are finally getting richly-deserved credit after having helped so many Westerners on their climbs with little to show for it.

Scraping the sky

Lai Chi-Wai is a four-time Asian Rock Climbing champion and was once ranked the 8th best climber in the world. 10 years ago, at the height of his career, he had a shocking fall which left him paralysed from the waist down. This week Chi-Wai scaled 250m up a Hong Kong skyscraper . In his wheelchair. While he did not reach the top (powerful winds threatened his safety 10 hours into the climb) his herculean effort raised HK$5.2m for spinal cord patients.

The worst of times

A spate of tragedies in Sulawesi. PHOTO: Yusuf Wahil / AP

Danger in the clouds and underfoot

Twin tragedies befell Indonesia over a perilous weekend. Last Friday the island of Sulawesi was shaken by a 6.2 magnitude earthquake. At least 90 bodies were pulled from the rubble as entire villages – 30,000 people - were displaced. Fears of aftershocks forced many residents to sleep among the rubble as authorities raced to clear the damage. At the same time, severe flooding on Borneo left 15 dead and almost 40,000 without a home. The sprawling archipelago on the ring of fire is prone to natural disasters — 169 have occurred this month alone.

Muzzling dissent

Thai authorities have ramped up pressure against a surging pro-democracy movement, with a record 43-year lèse majesté sentence . The jail term was handed down to a former civil servant – known by her first name Anchan – who shared videos on social media which were deemed defamatory. When King Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016, he wished for the laws not to be used. Now, they’re a regular occurrence: 50 have been arrested and charged with lèse majesté since November last year.

Weekend Reading

The image

Bright pink see-saws that penetrate Trump's border wall between El Paso and Ciudad de Juárez. These beautiful, tragic installations have just been named the 2020 Design of the Year. Photograph supplied by The Luis Torres / AFP.

The quote

"The word 'dragon fruit' is not appropriate, and is associated with China. The fruit's shaped like a lotus, and hence we have given it a new Sanskrit name, kamalam. There is nothing political about it."

Gujarati Chief Minister Vijay Rupani explains one of the more petty expressions of jingoism from recent memory and in doing so also sets a new world record for contradicting himself in the same breath.

The numbers


- The total number of pardons and commutations that Trump squeezed in before leaving office. Some deserved it (Lil Wayne), others didn't (Stephen Bannon).


- The number of minutes it takes to fully charge a lithium ion phosphate cell electric car battery developed at Penn State. Once topped up it can propel a car 250 miles.

The headline

"Biden removes Trump's Diet Coke button from the White House" The Independent . Savour it; we're not going to get headlines like this again.

The special mention

A special mention to our technological overlords at Google who've taken the overall January special mention in the category of due diligence. This week Google retaliated against a second researcher hired to look at the ethics of artificial intelligence . All large companies go academic-shopping to get the research papers they want; but few fire them so publicly when they find the 'wrong' information.

A few choice long-reads

  • Why buy the All Blacks when you could just buy New Zealand Rugby? Financial Times investigates the latest trend in private equity: pocketing the entire league.
  • If a Biden presidency harks back to the good old days, it wouldn't be complete without Russia filling the role of public enemy #1. Foreign Affairs makes the case for containing Putin's power.
  • At this type of therapy you may lay down on a leather sofa but it also might move and warp beneath you. Bloomberg Businessweek opens its third eye to psychedelic therapy schools.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting