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27 Jul

A Foreign Perspective, News and Analyses

English Online International Newspapers

Nearly all of these are English-edition daily newspapers. These sites have interesting editorials and essays, and many have links to other good news sources. We try to limit this list to those sites which are regularly updated, reliable, with a high percentage of “up” time.

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Boris Johnson Will Start Breaking Promises Tomorrow

After winning the Tory leadership contest this week, Boris Johnson is to become Britain’s next prime minister. He will have to show quickly that he can lead as well as he can seduce, and whether he will deliver Brexit or if it will be his undoing.

A Commentary By in London

British Prime Minister-designate Boris Johnson has difficult choices and little time.

British Prime Minister-designate Boris Johnson has difficult choices and little time.

So, there he is, standing in front of the big black door that has already daunted so many of his predecessors. A total of 92,153 conservative party members — less than 2 percent of the British population — have voted to send him there. And if Boris Johnson obtains the Queen’s official blessing on Wednesday afternoon, he will finally become the official occupant of 10 Downing Street. He’s been dreaming of this for decades.

But once he enters into his new life as prime minister, he will have to stand in front of the door and explain to his compatriots what he actually plans to do. Johnson is set to do that on Wednesday afternoon. And at that moment, he will begin breaking his promises.

In the past two weeks, as one of only two candidates to succeed Theresa May, his uncanny and one-of-a-kind talent for talking a lot without really saying anything was on perfect display. He has pledged all kinds of things to just about everyone, promising billions in gifts and tax cuts — managing to bring even deeply hostile Tory deputies on board with his argument that all is well, and nobody need worry. But they only boarded Boris’ ship because it’s the only one still afloat, and because its captain has so far kept them in the dark about his intended course.

This is what enabled Johnson to land in Britain’s highest political office. To keep that position, he’ll finally have to make choices. In that sense, it’s not especially important whether he will make a strong push for better schools or offer solutions to Britain’s housing crisis. As with May, his predecessor, Johnson will be measured solely on whether he succeeds with Brexit. Or whether Brexit consumes him.

Difficult Choices

Johnson has stated that he is determined to leave the European Union on Oct. 31, come what may. He wants to reopen the agreement Theresa May negotiated with Brussels and strip sections that the remaining 27 EU member states have declared non-negotiable. But he has also said that the chances of an unregulated departure, the so-called “no deal,” are a “million-to-one” against. All of this together cannot be true, and is not possible in the short window of time available.

Johnson knows this, too.

The question is who he is going to have the courage to spar with? The Brexiteers, who already showed May just how merciless they can be when she stopped doing what they wanted? Or more EU-friendly Tories, who have made good use of the recent weeks by putting together a powerful no-no-deal brigade? Johnson actually needs the support of both if he wants to remain in power. The minority government he will be leading has a razor-thin majority in parliament. If just three Tories were to bolt and join the EU-haters in the Brexit Party or if three members euphoric about the EU were to join the Liberal Democrats, that majority would vanish instantly.

That’s why Johnson’s next steps will be so crucial. Is he really going to convene a cabinet containing only proponents of a no-deal Brexit, as he has announced? Or will he also include his rival, Jeremy Hunt? Will Johnson travel to Brussels soon? Or not at all? Will he risk new elections to break the stalemate in parliament? Or even a second Brexit referendum? He has ruled that out, but does that really mean anything? And does Boris Johnson himself even know what he wants other than remaining prime minister for as long as possible?

His charisma has gotten him far. But he will now have to show that he has powers of leadership, not just of seduction.

Boris Johnson’s first 100 days as prime minister will begin on Wednesday. If things don’t go well, they could also be his last.

The 20 photographs of the week

Huge blazes in Greenland, Siberia and Alaska are producing plumes of smoke that can be seen from space

Wildfires: blazes rage in Arctic during severe heatwave – video

The Arctic is suffering its worst wildfire season on record, with huge blazes in Greenland, Siberia and Alaska producing plumes of smoke that can be seen from space.

The Arctic region has recorded its hottest June ever. Since the start of that month, more than 100 wildfires have burned in the Arctic circle. In Russia, 11 of 49 regions are experiencing wildfires.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations’ weather and climate monitoring service, has called the Arctic fires “unprecedented”.

The largest blazes, believed to have been caused by lightning, are located in Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Buryatia. Winds carrying smoke have caused air quality to plummet in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia.

In Greenland, the multi-day Sisimiut blaze, first detected on 10 July, came during an unusually warm and dry stretch in which melting on the vast Greenland ice sheet commenced a month earlier than usual.

In Alaska, as many as 400 fires have been reported. The climatologist Rick Thomas estimated the total area burned in the state this season as of Wednesday morning at 2.06m acres.

Mark Parrington, senior scientist with the Climate Change Service and Atmosphere Monitoring Service for Europe’s Copernicus Earth Observation Programme, described the extent of the smoke as “impressive” and posted an image of a ring of fire and smoke across much of the region.

Thomas Smith, an environmental geographer at the London School of Economics, told USA Today fires of such magnitude have not been seen in the 16-year satellite record.

The fires are not merely the result of surface ignition of dry vegetation: in some cases the underlying peat has caught fire. Such fires can last for days or months and produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

“These are some of the biggest fires on the planet, with a few appearing to be larger than 100,000 hectares,” Smith said.

“The amount of [carbon dioxide] emitted from Arctic circle fires in June 2019 is larger than all of the CO2 released from Arctic circle fires in the same month from 2010 through to 2018 put together.”

In June alone, the WMO said, Arctic fires emitted 50 megatonnes of CO2, equal to Sweden’s total annual emissions.

More On The Environment:

World Politics

United States

Plaintiffs in North Carolina say Republicans drew maps ‘impervious to the will of the voters’ that will be used in 2020

Demonstrators protest gerrymandering at the supreme court building in Washington DC.

Demonstrators protest gerrymandering at the supreme court building in Washington DC. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

In all the history of American gerrymandering, it must rate as one of the purest expressions of unapologetic partisanship: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country,” said the North Carolina representative David Lewis, then chairman of a committee carrying out a court-ordered revision of the state’s election maps.

Lewis was only saying what his colleagues were thinking. But the quote, from 2016, caught the attention of the supreme court justice Elena Kagan, who featured it prominently in her scathing dissent last month when the high court ruled that partisan gerrymandering – the practice of manipulating the contours of voting districts to rig them for one party – “present[s] political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts”.

“The majority goes tragically wrong,” Kagan wrote. Quoting Lewis about what was “better for the country”, she quipped: “You might think that judgment best left to the American people.”

By sidelining itself in the fight over partisan gerrymandering, however, the supreme court did not end the fight. Instead it has moved to the states, including back to North Carolina, where Lewis and fellow Republican legislators are currently on trial for allegedly, by manipulating the maps, violating citizens’ rights to a free and fair vote.

A ruling against the Republicans in North Carolina, analysts say, could be galvanizing, setting off a wave of gerrymandering challenges in other states. But the stakes in North Carolina are special.

The plaintiffs are asking a three-judge panel to throw out the state’s local legislative maps and have them redrawn before the 2020 election, when multiple statewide races – not to mention the presidential race – are expected to produce huge voter turnout. Whichever party wins a state legislative majority in 2020 will get to draw the next set of state maps, using data from the decennial US census; maps that will be the template for the next 10 years of voting in North Carolina.

Not least, a victory in North Carolina court for the Democrats this summer could help the party invigorate voters in a swing state that could decide whether Donald Trump gets four more years in the White House.

“I think the eyes of the nation are watching to see what happens here,” said Bob Phillips, the state director of the advocacy group Common Cause, a plaintiff in the case. “For other states, it might be, ‘Hey, if it can be done in North Carolina, it might be done in your state’. That’s what we tell advocates around the country.”

The gerrymandering trial proceeded on a recent day in the state capital of Raleigh, in a law school room borrowed by the Wake county superior court for the purpose, two blocks from the capitol grounds, where a trio of monuments to the Confederacy, including a 75ft tall obelisk dedicated “to our Confederate dead”, have been the subject of protest recently, but seem unlikely to come down anytime soon.

To say that the trial proceedings were electric would be accurate – for gerrymandering buffs. For three hours, mathematics professor Wesley Pegden testified about how he had created a program to randomly generate trillions of maps of North Carolina state legislative districts that were slightly different from the enacted maps.

With a projected animation on the courtroom walls of a computer furiously redrawing the enacted map, as if it were trying to defeat itself at tic-tac-toe, Pegden demonstrated that only one out of every 100,000 or so hypothetical maps was better for Republicans than the enacted map.

“It’s almost like I could hear the voice of the Republican mapmaker tell me, ‘No, don’t change those lines, they’re exactly where I want them’,” Pegden said. “The maps are among the most carefully crafted maps for Republican partisan advantage which exist.”

The mapmaker whom Pegden heard whispering in his ear would be Thomas Hofeller, “the Michelangelo of the modern gerrymander” per his August 2018 New York Times obituary, whose dramatically estranged daughter last year discovered secret files among personal effects that happened to include a bunch of time-stamped maps allegedly demonstrating how Hofeller had used partisan data to redraw North Carolina legislative districts in 2017. Those maps were now Exhibit A for the plaintiffs’ side.

The partisan makeup of North Carolina’s statehouse over the years seems to bear out Pegden’s assessment of Hofeller’s craftsmanship. Republicans won 64% of state House seats in 2012 with only 52% of the statewide vote. In 2018, Republicans won 49% of the vote and ended up with 55% of the seats. “The maps are impervious to the will of the voters,” the plaintiffs contend.

Job security for Republican elected officials has seemed to produce some peculiar policies. Ninety percent of the Republican lawmakers who voted for a 2016 state law seeking to control which toilet transgender people could use – the notorious “bathroom bill”, repealed after a national boycott and outcry – had either run uncontested in the previous election or won by double-digit margins.

“Things like the bathroom bill, for example, it is my belief that in a more balanced state legislature, that wouldn’t have been such an issue,” said Amy Oseroff, 64, a schoolteacher and a plaintiff in the case who recently attended the trial.

The defense argues that Pegden’s models are flawed, that the Republican advantage has been exaggerated, and that, in any case, partisan gerrymandering is a game both parties play – and is not illegal and the courts should stay out of it.

The lead defense attorney, Phillip Strach, deferred comment to the defendants. Representative Lewis simply said Democrats had failed to field the kind of “pro-business, reasonable-minded” candidates people wanted to vote for.

Lewis called it “a great honor” to be involved in the supreme court case, but he took issue with Justice Kagan’s singling him out in her dissent, arguing for his free speech rights.

“I would submit that Justice Kagan should have recognized that I have a free speech right to say what I think is right, and what I think is best for the country, just like she does,’ he said. “It was disappointing to me that that was not recognized.”

He also insisted the maps were fair and followed “traditional redistricting criteria”.

Meanwhile, the chief justice, John Roberts, took flak in the recent decision for opining that partisan gerrymandering was literally older than the republic, suggesting that its long history made the practice acceptable. But in the last 10 – or even five – years, supercomputers, increasingly granular voter data and the hardening of voters’ partisan identities have totally changed the gerrymandering game. As Kagan put it, “these are not your grandfather’s – let alone the framers’ – gerrymanders.”

Some democracy advocates see a once-in-a-generation opportunity in North Carolina to push redistricting reform through. If Democrats can summon another anti-Trump “blue wave” in 2020, they might succeed, in spite of the maps, at winning control of the legislature and, with it, control of the redistricting process. That could spur Republicans to pursue reform.

“Unfortunately, the Democrats, some of them will say, ‘We can’t wait to win in 2020, take it back and gerrymander the hell out of them’,” said Phillips. “Now, that’s not what I want, but it’s out there, and it’s playing in the minds of the majority party. If you are the majority party and you don’t do reform, one day you might be on the other side of the stick.”

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