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Australian Cabinet Approves 2 Billion Dollars for Fire Relief

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  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday that at least 2 billion dollars have been approved for bushfire recovery services.
  • The fires have been blazing across the country for months, and have burned over 14 million acres and killed at least 24 people. It has also been estimated that 480 million animals have perished in the state of New South Wales alone. 
  • Australia has faced fires before, but none quite like this, as these flames are intensified by worsening climate change. 
  • Many are frustrated with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, criticizing him of being complacent in the wake of disaster and not taking enough political action to combat climate change.

Funding for Months-Long Destruction

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced funding of at least 2 billion Australian dollars for bushfire recovery on Monday after months of devastation. 

At least 24 people have been killed and over 14 million acres burned by the fires that have raged across the country.   

The fire season kicked up in September after the nation went through its warmest recorded spring. The heat continued into December, when the record was broken for Australia’s hottest day, with average highs of 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit blazing across the continent.  

These extreme temperatures, as well as long periods of drought and fierce winds, have led to the intensification and rapid spread of the fires.

Even with the rain and cooler temperatures that also came on Monday, providing temporary relief, the circumstances remain dire. 

Tens of thousands of firefighters have been battling the flames over the past few months, a majority of them volunteers. Despite these forces, the situation in Australia is so bad that the country has requested additional international aid. 

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, around 100 U.S. firefighters have been deployed to assist in suppressing the Australian bushfires. Canada is also sending firefighters to Australia for the first time. As of Sunday, 87 Canadian firefighters were deployed to Australia, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center

Widespread Destruction

The flames have affected the nation’s east coast the most, particularly the state of New South Wales, where over 1,300 homes have been destroyed. As of Monday morning, more than 130 fires were still burning across the state, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

On Nov. 11, the state issued a “catastrophic” fire danger warning. This was the first time a rating that high had been issued since the warning system went into effect in 2009, according to The New York Times. Last month, the air quality in Sydney was measured at 11 times the “hazardous” level. 

Victoria, the state below New South Wales, has faced its own frightening conditions. 

Last week, about 4,000 residents and tourists in the town of Mallacoota fled to nearby beaches to escape the flames. About 1,000 people participated in voluntary evacuations headed by the Australian Defense Force’s navy vessels.

Devastation to Wildlife

In addition to the fires having tragic effects on Australian locals, wildlife have also gravely suffered. An estimated 480 million animals have died in New South Wales alone, according to a report by Chris Dickman, a professor at the University of Sydney. 

This figure includes mammals, birds, and reptiles and does not take into account insects, bats or frogs. It is reported that while many of these animals were likely killed directly by the fires, some succumbed later due to a loss of food and shelter resources. 

Climate Change Implications

Australia has faced tough fires before, but this season is far more intense. The nation typically sees dry, hot summers, and climate change brings extended stretches of extreme heat, which makes vegetation even more susceptible to burn.

According to scientific reports by the United Nations Association of Australia, few if any other developed countries are as vulnerable to climate change as this one. 

Backlash Against Prime Minister

Throughout this year’s fire season, Prime Minister Morrison has received backlash for his response to the disasters—and for what critics call his lack of political action in response to climate change.

In the wake of the bushfires, Morrison took a vacation to Hawaii before for the holidays. But after facing much criticism, he cut his trip short and returned home.

Scrutiny for Morrison then continued after his visit to Cobargo on Jan. 2, a town in New South Wales that has been heavily affected by the fires.

Morrison’s attempt to talk with locals and volunteers did not go well. After reaching out to thank a firefighter, the man said to him: “I don’t really want to shake your hand.”

Another Cobargo local made headlines when she criticized Morrison for not giving enough funds to Rural Fire Services.

“I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to RFS,” she told the Prime Minister. “So many people here have lost their homes. We need more help.”

International Attention

The Australian fires have gained attention from people all around the world, including celebrities who are donating funds toward relief and using their platforms to promote awareness. 

Nicole Kidman, who holds Australian citizenship, announced on Instagram that her family is donating $500,000 to RFS.

Musician Pink, whose full name is Alecia Beth Moore, pledged the same amount to local disaster services. 

Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio has been posting and reposting updates on the fires for months, urging people to take action in the climate crisis.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Washington Post) (New York Times)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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Greta Thunberg To Skip U.N. Climate Change Conference, Citing Vaccine Inequality

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  • Young environmental activist Greta Thunberg will not attend the U.N.’s climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland this November.
  • “Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem,” the 18-year-old tweeted Friday, adding, “Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions.”
  • Since rollouts began late last year, 40% of vaccines have been administered in wealthy and Western countries, according to The Washington Post.
  • Scientists have warned that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg Points To Vaccine Inequality

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said she is skipping the UN’s climate change conference.

The COP26 summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November, but 18-year-old Thunberg told BBC she won’t attend because she’s concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on attendance.

In a Twitter thread Friday, she responded to a headline about her plans to miss the summit.

“Of course I would love to attend…But not unless everyone can take part on the same terms. Right now many countries are vaccinating healthy young people, often at the expense of risk groups and front line workers (mainly from global south, as usual…),” she wrote.

“Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem.”

“Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions,” the teen continued.

Thunberg went on to say that if the summit is delayed, it doesn’t mean urgent action should too.

“We don’t have to wait for conferences nor anyone or anything else to dramatically start reducing our emissions. Solidarity and action can start today,” she added before noting that digital alternatives for the conference would also be insufficient.

“High speed internet connection and access to computers is extremely unequal in the world. In that case we would lack representation from those whose voices need to be heard the most when it comes to the climate crisis,” she wrote.

Data on Global Vaccine Distribution Efforts

According to The Washington Post, nearly 20% of people in the United States are now vaccinated, but many other countries are unlikely to hit that same metric by the end of the year, even with international assistance through the Covax program.

Current projections predict it could be years before developing countries distribute enough doses to come close to herd immunity, which scientists say requires inoculating around 70-80% of a population.

Since rollouts began late last year, enough shots have been distributed to fully vaccinate about 5% of the world’s population, but The Post reported that the vast majority have been administered in wealthy and Western countries.

Around 40% of vaccines have been given in 27 wealthy nations that include only 11% of the world’s population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

That’s pretty concerning because scientists also warn that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg’s comments are a blow for U.K. organizers, who have already postponed the conference once from last November because of the pandemic. Even now, there has been speculation that it could be delayed again this year.

Thunberg would not play a formal role at the conference but her decision not to attend is a significant symbolic moment.

At COP25, the young climate change activist gave a headline speech and she typically attends major climate events of this nature. On top of that, reports say this summit was slated to be one of the most consequential climate conferences since the 2015 Paris accord.

On the agenda for this year’s conference discussions were country-level plans for cutting carbon emissions, along with progress on the Paris agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (CNBC) (The Washington Post)

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