Saturday, the 19th of June

Talking Points

America has fully vaccinated 43.9% of its population. PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo / Getty
  1. Bad news: the Delta variant continues to spread rapidly
  2. Good news: the Pfizer and AZ shots work against it
  3. The US Covid-19 death toll hit a sombre milestone: 600,000
  4. The FBI warned of "real-world violence" from QAnon followers
  5. A US veteran father and his son pled guilty in the Ghosn trial
  6. Chinese taikonauts flew to their incomplete space station
  7. Hong Kong's last liberal paper, Apple Daily, saw more arrests
  8. Fuel rods were damaged at a Chinese nuclear power plant
  9. Spy cam pornography reached 'epidemic' levels in South Korea
  10. A controversial march ratcheted up tension in Jerusalem

Dive deeper

Glimpse of a recent heatwave in Encinitas, California. PHOTO: Mike Blake / Reuters

It's summer. After a nightmarish 18 months, cooped up Americans are ready to get out and bask. Only it's too hot out West to do so. The sun is scorching, the power grids are failing, and that sweet summer air is already wreathed with wildfire smoke.

The new normal

It shouldn't be this hot . Not until July or August. But high surface pressure has enveloped the western and southwestern states of America in a 'heat dome' . (Editor's note: An interesting byproduct of climate change has been our penchant for inventing inoffensive or even fun terms to describe shocking weather conditions. Remember the 'polar vortex'?)

Right now, 48 million Americans across 11 states are living under extreme heat warnings. The National Weather Service has told people to limit their time outside. As if the parched, pulsating heat of a 120 °F (49°C) day isn't warning enough. Arizona, Nevada, and Utah are all facing their hottest-ever recorded temperatures. Phoenix is baking: the overnight minimum on Wednesday was 90°F (32°C). The only thing keeping it from breaking a 50-year-old heat record is the smoke from a nearby wildfire that is actually lowering the temperature. Houston has only been this hot this early in the year on two prior occasions (2011, 1998 – both were brutal summers). And so, just as the pandemic wanes in America, the nation faces another significant public health risk.

Prolonged drought conditions have also found a welcome ally in this sun-blasted start to summer. California is facing another perilous fire season . Firefighters warn that the fuel load is bone dry. Coastal sage, chaparral shrubs, varied oaks in the coastal range, sub-alpine conifers, hardwoods, and redwood forests. The climate – our climate – has dehydrated these habitats to tinder. 4.3 million acres of California burnt in last year's infernos. This year could be worse. Significant fire potential has been declared across six states by the National Interagency Fire Centre.

Power grids are straining across the western United States. There is a stark warning here for energy grid operators the world over: it doesn't take a hurricane to compromise the network. Soaring usage – think of all those air conditioners or heaters – on days of extreme temperature variability compounds the stress that infrastructure is under. The profound drought in the West has significantly weakened the output of hydroelectric dams. Powerlines and grid infrastructure can also buckle in triple digit weather. During the February cold snap the only way to stave off a state-wide grid failure in Texas was rolling blackouts. More than 100 people died when the state was plunged into darkness. This week the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) once again begged users to ration electricity use.

Help is coming, right?

That this heatwave rolled over the western United States so close to the close of the G7 summit is actually quite useful. We know what is causing the heatwave. A recent study by scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the Earth "energy imbalance approximately doubled" from 2005 to 2019. Twice as much heat is being trapped in our atmosphere. It sharpens the question: what was agreed upon at the G7 to ease this? Will it provide solace to the tens of millions of Americans wilting in the heat?

Last week's conference of global leaders produced a reiteration of a long-promised climate plan: a fund for emissions reduction and climate mitigation. $100b to be paid annually by the developed world and spent in the developing. But we've heard this before – for more than a decade, actually. And, only Canada and Germany announced that they would up their contributions to the fund. The United States made sweeping statements about the necessity of moving away from coal, but provided little detail. What was missing was significant new funding and a rigorous plan for decarbonising more rapidly. That led some to describe the G7 meeting as a colossal failure . The can has yet again been kicked down the road. This time to the November COP26 meeting in Glasgow.

Cold comfort on a sweltering night in Salt Lake City.


NATO's longest mission: failed. PHOTO: Jon Raedle / Getty

NATO looks to trade-up its adversaries

If the G7 was a pricey launch party for previously agreed-upon policies, then what was this week's NATO Summit? The 30 members of that tired mutual defence pact promised to deepen their partnership and protect the rules-based international order. Anodyne, stale, and unimaginative. China was given a poke for posing a "systemic challenge" , but Shanghai is quite some distance from the Atlantic. Some of the more forward-thinking member states pushed for greater preparedness for present threats like climate change. Without the foil of a brash Moscow, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation resembles an answer in search of a question. Indeed, the Biden-Putin summit later in the week had none of the media-friendly bellicosity; it was a relatively productive conversation . And while most leaders at the NATO summit were keen to try on new threats, there was very little enthusiasm to discuss the longest mission: Afghanistan.

But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was having none of it. He brushed off the issue saying, "Afghanistan has come a long way, both when it comes to building strong, capable security forces, but also when it comes to social and economic progress. At some stage, it has to be the Afghans that take full responsibility for peace and stability in their own country". I guess it doesn't matter whether that statement is true or not because NATO member states have already withdrawn, or are in the process of doing so. Meanwhile Afghanistan's "strong, capable security forces" are being overwhelmed by the Taliban all across the country. Dozens of special forces soldiers – the tip of the spear – were killed in a Taliban assault Faryab province this week. Tarin Kowt , the capital of Uruzgan province, will almost undoubtedly fall this year. The Pentagon believes that Al Qaeda and ISIS will regroup in the country "within two years".

When Stoltenberg insists that Afghans "take full responsibility", he's speaking on behalf of an international community that has grown weary of the conflict. The Afghans must themselves be weary too. Of waiting for NATO to take full responsibility for propping up the loathed Hamid Karzai after he stole an election. Of fighting alongside the corrupt provincial governors who ran the opium trade. And of the feared police militias who indirectly funded the Taliban with untold millions in bribes to their protect convoys, and radicalised a generation of Afghans by accidentally bombing their villages.

Has Biogen cracked Alzheimer's? PHOTO: Biogen / AP

An Alzheimer's breakthrough is swiftly broken

We live in an ageing world. Nearly every country on the planet (bar 18) has a rising life expectancy and an ageing population. The proportion of us aged over 65 tripled in the second half of the 20th century. By the midpoint of the 21st, one in six humans will be 65 or over. With this enormous demographic shift come the attendant health issues. Complex, interlocking, and often untreatable issues. Alzheimer's, a disease of cognitive decline that accounts for two-thirds of dementia cases, looms as a global health challenge. Many of us have had intimate, challenging, and sometimes heartbreaking experiences with a family member or friend living with Alzheimer's.

Which is why any news of an Alzheimer's treatment – such as the new drug that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) signed off on last week – draws global interest. This treatment named Aduhelm is a monoclonal antibody that has been shown to reduce brain plaque; the buildup of beta-amyloid proteins that interrupts brain signals. It is the first new treatment in nearly two decades . But the excitement was modulated quickly by criticisms from scientists, politicians, and public health experts. Aduhlem has received approval for its ability to reduce beta-amyloids. The kicker is that the scientific community is split as to whether beta-amyloid build-up is the cause of Alzheimer's, not merely a symptom of it. Biogen, the Massachusetts pharmaceutical company that developed Aduhelm, failed to show unambiguously that it is effective in slowing cognitive decline.

The treatment, which would likely incur a Medicare copay of $11,000 , is also prohibitively expensive. And might not even work. But this ought not be a reason to lose hope. Dementia-related treatments are once again a source of significant research capital. Just this week another US drug-maker took further steps with an Alzheimer's medication that targets Tau proteins in the brain .

The worst of times

Peatland to dryland. PHOTO: Shutterstock

No more Islay scotch

The world’s peatlands are at risk of drying up, threatening to release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Analysis by scientists found that crops, land development, and, of course, climate change are behind the decline. Though peatlands cover 3% of the planet’s land surface, they hold one third of all soil carbon. If their decline continues unabated, an additional 860m tons of CO 2 will be released annually by the end of the century.

Hungary regresses

This week, Hungary passed yet another set of anti-LGBTQI+ laws. This time it was under the guise of fighting pedophilia . The new legislation prevents content which ‘promotes’ homosexuality or gender changes from being shown to minors. That includes educational programmes, advertising, and entertainment. Rights groups fear the legislation will increase the stigmatisation and harassment of LGBTQI+ people. Previous legal discrimination against the community has included banning gay couples from adoptions and refusing legal recognition of gender changes.

The best of times

Fancy this in a cake? PHOTO: Getty

A novel solution: eat your plastic

Scientists have developed bacteria capable of turning plastic bottles into vanilla flavouring. Not only does the process reduce waste, it also cuts our reliance on fossil fuels: 85% of the world’s vanillin is synthesised with chemicals derived from fossil fuels. All it takes is for the single-use bottles to be soaked in a broth of genetically-engineered bacteria for a day. Once that’s done, the vanillin can be used in food products , as well as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Another monoclonal antibody – where do we get some?

A new drug reduces by a fifth the risk of death for people without Covid antibodies. Those without antibodies are usually twice as likely to die from coronavirus. The monoclonal antibody treatment is the first to target coronavirus itself, rather than the inflammation it creates. It works by attaching itself to two separate parts of the protein, preventing the virus from getting into cells.

Weekend Reading

The image

Only one photograph matters this week: Wasabi the Pekingese who won Best in Show at the Westminster Dog Show. It's great for a chuckle, until you remember that these boutique animals are selectively bred for certain physical traits at the cost of their health and longevity. Photograph supplied by The New York Times.

The quote

"The people's food situation is now getting tense as the agricultural sector failed to fulfil its grain production plan due to the damage by the typhoon last year."

– North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un's statement is a rare sign of vulnerability from the hermit autocrat . Severe flooding from last year's typhoons exacerbated the damage of the coronavirus pandemic. Chronic food shortages have pushed much of the country into hunger – recalling the dark years of the 1990s. During that famine, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of North Koreans starved to death as both Pyongyang and Washington refused to budge on sanction relief.

The numbers


- The headline US consumer inflation index jumped five percentage points in May. Covid bottlenecks have pushed up prices the world over and have prompted some economists to raise the alarm about a wage-price spiral. Others have pointed to the tens of millions of jobs still missing from the pre-Covid global economy as a tempering factor. Indeed, even with a faster-than-expected rebound, central banks don't see interest rates rising until 2023 .


- Coca-Cola suffered a public embarrassment this week after its products were pushed off-camera at the Euro 2020. Before giving his post-game press conference, Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo said, "drink water" before removing the sponsors soft drink bottles from his desk. Coca-Cola's share price dropped from $56.10 to $55.22 almost immediately - a four billion dollar drop in market share.

The headline

"Wealth secret of the super rich revealed: be born into a rich family" The Guardian . In other news, sky still blue.

The special mention

This one is for any inkl members who watched Looney Tunes at a particularly impressionable juncture of their childhoods. You can now live out your fantasy as Yosemite Sam in Texas! Governor Greg Abbott has rolled back gun restrictions in the Lone Star State – Texans over the age of 21 can now carry a firearm in public without having undergone background checks, received a permit, or completed any training . Gov. Abbott: congratulations on winning this week's special mention.

A few choice long-reads

  • The powers-that-be will tell you that politics and sport don't mix. You know that's a fallacy. The Financial Times with a fantastic view on Euro 2020 and the culture war.
  • Foreign Affairs lays out a ringing case: America is not ready for war with China. Hopefully it won't ever need to be.
  • And finally, a riotous piece from Bloomberg Businessweek – What Happened When an El Salvadoran Surf Town Went Full Crypto. This is clickbait specifically designed for our interests.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting