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The bitter lesson of the Californian fires



File 20181112 194485 2i4k8e.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A firefighter in California. Firefighting is getting more and more expensive as fires get more destructive.
PETER DASILVA

David Bowman, University of Tasmania

California is burning, again. Dozens of peoples have been killed and thousands of buildings destroyed in several fires, the most destructive in the state’s history.

The California fires are just the most recent in a series of major wildfires, including fires in Greece in July this year that killed 99 people, Portugal and Chile in 2017, and Australia.

Why do wildfires seem to be escalating? Despite president Donald Trump’s tweet that the California fires were caused by “gross mismanagement” of forests, the answer is more complex, nuanced, and alarming.

What caused the California fires?

The current California fires reflect a complex mix of climate, social, and ecological factors. Fuels across California are currently highly combustible due to a prolonged drought and associated low humidity and high air temperatures. Indeed, it is so dry fires burn freely through the night. Such extreme weather conditions have the fingerprints of climate change.




Read more:
Wildfires in Mediterranean Europe will increase by 40% at 1.5°C warming, say scientists


Compounding the desiccated fuels are the seasonally predictable strong desert winds (the Diablo and Santa Ana) that help fires spread rapidly towards the coast.

Low density housing embedded in flammable vegetation has created an ideal fuel mix for these destructive fires. Having people scattered across the landscape ensures a steady source of ignitions, ranging from powerline faults to carelessness and arson, making fires a near certainty when dangerous weather conditions arise.

One of the fires burning in California.
MIKE NELSON

Decades of wildfire suppression have created fuel loads that sustain intense fires. That these fuels are burning in late autumn is even more alarming. Under severe fire weather forest fires can engulf entire communities, with fires spreading from house to house, and human communities turning into a unique wildfire “fuel”. Suburbs can burn at the rate of one house per minute .

The standard response to wildfires is to fight them aggressively, using a military-style approach involving small armies of fire fighters combined with aircraft that spread fire retardant and saturate fire-fronts with water. Such approaches are extraordinarily costly. Annual spending on fire fighting has been steadily rising. In the US, annual fire-fighting costs now exceed several billion dollars, with individual fire campaigns costing ten to over a hundred million dollars.




Read more:
Spiraling wildfire fighting costs are largely beyond the Forest Service’s control


Although industrial fire-fighting approaches currently enjoy political and social support, the strategy is economically unsustainable. And they are impotent in the face of climate change driven fire disasters such as those currently occurring in California.

A human disaster

Across the fire science community there is growing recognition this “total war” on fire approach has failed. The key to sustainable co-existence with flammable landscapes is instead managing fuels around settlements, and stopping wildfires from starting in the first place.

Spain and Portugal are good examples of why this is so important. In these Mediterranean lands, humans have sustainably co-existed with flammable landscapes for thousands of year. However, the near ubiquitous depopulation of rural lands following the second world war has led to the proliferation of flammable vegetation that had previously been held in check by intensive small-scale subsistence agriculture.

The Village of Rojas in Catalonia, Spain in 1946.
Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya
The same Spanish village in 2017. Large-scale rural depopulation has led to widespread abandonment of formerly agricultural land, massive fuel accumulation and subsequent historically unprecedented fires.
Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya

With the loss of this traditional agriculture Mediterranean countries are now experiencing regular fire disasters (such as the 2018 Greek fires and the 2017 Portuguese and Spanish fires). These are equivalent to fires in more recently settled flammable landscapes in the Americas and Australia.

This seems to be the story in most flammable landscapes on earth: the removal of traditional landscape management by colonisation and globalisation has combined with climate change to turn these landscapes into tinderboxes.

But just as it is unrealistic for Australia to faithfully restore Indigenous fire management practices, expecting a return to historical practices in the Mediterranean is not realistic. There is little economic or social reason for people to return to traditional rural lifestyles, and the gravitational pull of the social and economic advantages in urban areas is too great to stem rural depopulation.

Living with fire

But we can adapt traditional practices to help us live with fire. In the Mediterranean, people are already experimenting with different ways to manage landscapes, such as managing forests for cork and bioenergy, combined with prescribed burning and grazing.

Cork harvesting, selective cutting of trees for bioenergy, understory clearing, and cattle grazing are used in Catalonia, Spain to manage fire hazard by creating a ‘green fire break’.
David Bowman

This can create picturesque landscapes that are fire-resistant and easy to defend. Similarly, in Australia, the Victorian government has created parkland-like green fire breaks that were used for back burning operations to protect communities during 2009 Black Saturday wildfires.

A green fire break in mountain ash forest near Kinglake, Victoria.
David Bowman

The Hobart City Council is planning to use similar fire breaks to protect its outer suburbs with dense bushland. Such management could be used on a larger scale to substantially reduce fire risk. The challenge for landscape fuel management is providing financial and regulatory incentives for citizens and local communities to reduce fuel.

Currently, no society is sustainably co-existing with wildfire. Globally, the situation will worsen under a rapidly-warming climate with ballooning firefighting costs, and huge loss of life and destruction of property. This is the bitter lesson of the Californian fires.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor, Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anti-Trump backlash at US by-elections


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

Today, a by-election was held in Kansas’ fourth Congressional District (CD) for election to the US House. This CD is very conservative, and voted for Donald Trump by 60-33 against Hillary Clinton at the 2016 election. At this by-election, the Republican prevailed by 53-46, a net improvement of 20 points for the Democrats from Trump’s margin in 2016. The Conversation

The Kansas result is not the only poor outcome for Republicans. A by-election was held in California’s 34th CD last Tuesday. This is a Democratic fortress, which Clinton won by 84-11. This by-election used a “jungle primary”, where candidates from the same party, and those from other parties, run on the one ballot paper. Unless one candidate wins a vote majority, the top two, regardless of party, proceed to a runoff.

As California’s 34th CD is a Democratic bastion, about 20 Democrats and only one Republican ran, and the top six vote winners were Democrats. The sole Republican won a risible 3.2% of the votes, well down from Trump’s 11%. The top two candidates, both Democrats, will proceed to a 6 June runoff.

While party control did not change in either by-election, the swing from Trump to the Democratic candidates is encouraging for the Democrats, and indicates that the November 2018 midterm elections could be good for the Democrats.

Next Tuesday (results Wednesday morning Melbourne time), a “jungle primary” by-election will be held in Georgia’s Republican-held sixth CD. The lead Democrat, Jon Ossoff, has a chance to win a vote majority, and thus avoid a runoff against a single Republican. This CD voted for Trump by a 48.3-46.8 margin.

Trump’s ratings in FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker are currently 52.5% disapprove, 41.5% approve for a net of -11. After dropping briefly below 40% following the health care debacle, his ratings have recovered a point or two after the Syrian missile strike.

Daily Kos elections has calculated the Presidential results for all 435 CDs. Presidential results by CD are not generally published by election boards, and need to be calculated from each county’s precinct information.

Republicans change rules to get Gorsuch confirmed to US Supreme Court

On Friday, staunch conservative judge Neil Gorsuch won a confirmation vote in the US Senate, 54-45, and will now be a Supreme Court Justice. Gorsuch replaces Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016, restoring a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch is aged 49, so he could be on the Court for the next 30 years, delivering conservative verdicts.

Barack Obama had nominated Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, but the Republicans, who controlled the Senate, had refused to even grant Garland a hearing, arguing that Obama’s successor should select the next Supreme Court nominee. When Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, this strategy was vindicated.

Under Senate rules, Democrats could have filibustered Gorsuch’s confirmation. For a filibuster to be defeated, 3/5 of the Senate (60 Senators) are required to vote for cloture. With Republicans only holding a 52-48 Senate majority, a Democratic filibuster of Gorsuch would have succeeded.

However, the filibuster rule has never been part of the US Constitution, and a Senate majority can change the Senate’s rules. On Thursday, Republicans used the “nuclear” option, removing the ability of a minority to filibuster Supreme Court confirmations in a 52-48 party-line vote.

Democrats themselves had used the nuclear option to remove the ability of a minority to filibuster lower court and Cabinet confirmations in 2013. The filibuster now only exists for legislation, and that filibuster is likely to be abolished in the near future.

French Presidential election: hard left Melenchon surges

The French Presidential election will be held in two rounds. The first round is on 23 April, and the top two vote winners proceed to the second round on 7 May.

Current polls have the centrist Emmanuel Macron and far right Marine Le Pen tied at 23%, followed by conservative Francois Fillon on 19% and the hard left Jean-Luc Melenchon on 18%. A few weeks ago, Melenchon had just 10% support. His gains have come mainly at the expense of Socialist Benoit Hamon, who has fallen into single digits.

Many on the French left have been frustrated with the current Socialist government’s pro-business agenda, which Macron would continue. In contrast, Melenchon’s policies include a 100% tax on the part of any income over 360,000 Euros a year (about $AU 500,000).

If Macron makes the runoff against any of the other three contenders, he should win easily. While still unlikely, it is possible that Macron could be knocked out of the runoff. If this happens, there would be two candidates that most voters would probably object to, and the runoff would not be predictable.

NSW by-elections: Liberals suffer large swings, but hold their seats

On Saturday, by-elections occurred in the Liberal-held seats of Manly and North Shore, and the Labor-held seat of Gosford. Manly and North Shore became vacant following the retirements of former Premier Mike Baird and Health Minister Jillian Skinner, while Gosford’s vacancy was caused by a cancer diagnosis for its former member, Kathy Smith.

Labor easily held Gosford by 62.5-37.5 vs the Liberals, a 12.3 point swing to Labor from the 2015 election. The Liberals suffered a 24 point primary vote swing against them in Manly and a 15 point swing in North Shore, which Labor did not contest, but held both seats against Independent challengers. Vote shares in both these seats were 43-44% for the Liberals, 22-24% for the main Independent challenger and 16-18% for the Greens.

A Liberal vs Independent two candidate count in North Shore and Manly is not yet available, but Antony Green expects comfortable Liberal wins, especially given NSW’s optional preferential voting. Update Thursday afternoon: The Liberals won North Shore by 54.7-45.3 and Manly by 60.5-39.5

A NSW Newspoll, taken from February to March from a sample of 1580, had the Coalition leading by 51-49, unchanged from November to December 2016. Primary votes were Coalition 40% (down 1), Labor 34% (down 2), Greens 10% (down 1) and One Nation 8%. Premier Gladys Berejiklian had initial ratings of 44% satisfied and 21% dissatisfied, while Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s net approval was up 2 points to -4.

The 2015 NSW election result was 54.4-45.6 to the Coalition, so Newspoll implies a 3 point swing against the Coalition. The by-election results suggest a larger swing, but by-elections are not good guides to general elections. Governments usually do badly at by-elections because people are inclined to vote against the government, knowing that such a vote will not change the government.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.