World

Joe Biden ramps up climate policies as fires ravage US west coast. Australia offers another loan to PNG over Covid-19. Hotel manager depicted in Hotel Rwanda facing terrorism charge. Abraham Accords signed by Israel, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Trump denies link between climate change and wildfires

A firefighter tackles a blaze in the US state of Washington on September 11.
Credit: UPI / Alamy

Great power rivalry

United States: For the past five weeks, wildfires have ravaged the west coast of America, killing more than 30 people, forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes and destroying more than 1.8 million hectares. In California, firefighters are battling dozens of blazes, including one – the August Complex fire – which is the state’s worst on record. In western Oregon, fires have razed areas that are typically wet and do not usually burn.

On Monday, Donald Trump, who had remained largely silent about the fires, visited affected areas in California and insisted the devastation was due to poor forest management rather than climate change.

“It’ll start getting cooler,” he said. “You just watch.”

A Californian official responded: “I wish science agreed with you.”

Trump then said: “Well, I don’t think science knows, actually.”

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, also discussed the fires in a speech this week, but laid the blame squarely on climate change and described Trump as a “climate arsonist”.

“If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires?” he said.

The divergent comments by the presidential contenders thrust the issue of climate change, which has received little attention during the election campaign, into the centre of the nation’s political debate.

Biden has adopted increasingly strong climate policies, including a plan to convert the economy to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. He also adopted a four-year plan to spend $US2 trillion on green technology, jobs and infrastructure, and will move to install 500,000 electric-vehicle charging stations by 2030. He wants to reverse Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement and will “go much further” and urge other countries to adopt tougher, more transparent emission reduction commitments.

Visiting damaged woodlands, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said: “The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California.”

The fires have been causing hazardous trails of smoke that are complicating efforts to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

A resident of Portland, Oregon, Jordan Taylor, told The Washington Post this week: “We can’t be inside with people. Now we’ve got this smoke and we can’t be outside. You can’t get a breath of fresh air.”

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: The government of Papua New Guinea has warned that the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic will be “quite massive” as it continues to battle a rise in cases.

The country’s treasurer, Ian Ling-Stuckey, last week delivered a supplementary budget, which included plans to allow the government to take on higher levels of debt. He said gross domestic product had been forecast before the pandemic to grow by 2 per cent this year but was now set to drop by 3 per cent.

On Tuesday, five more Covid-19 infections were recorded, bringing PNG’s tally to 516 cases and six deaths. The actual number of infections is believed to be much higher. But the government says it will not order further lockdowns because the country cannot afford the economic damage.

Australia, the largest aid donor to PNG, has announced it will lend about $135 million to PNG, adding to the $440 million loan it made last year.

Australia’s minister for International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke, dismissed suggestions that the support was motivated by concerns about China’s growing influence in the Pacific.

“We got asked for direct budget support – we’ve provided it,” he told ABC News. “We’ve done that because we owe a debt to PNG from our shared history … our administration of the country under the British, the wartime history that we’ve had, our shared geography, our regional [ties], our family ties.”

Democracy in retreat

Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina, whose efforts to protect more than 1000 Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 were depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda, has faced terrorism charges after being mysteriously flown back to his homeland.

The 66-year-old former manager of the Mille Collines hotel left Rwanda in 1996 after receiving death threats and allegedly surviving an assassination attempt. He became a Belgian citizen and now lives in Texas.

A strident critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Rusesabagina arrived in Kigali at the end of August on a flight from Dubai and was arrested at the airport. Kagame hinted that Rusesabagina, who had travelled from the US to Dubai, had been tricked into boarding a private flight.

“You will be surprised how he got here,” Kagame told reporters. “He was not kidnapped or hoodwinked … It was actually flawless.”

Rusesabagina is believed to be the leader of an opposition group whose armed wing has been linked to deadly attacks in Rwanda. In December 2018, he posted a video on YouTube in which he condemned Kagame and called for the use of  “any means possible to bring about change … as all political means have been tried and failed”.

In court on Monday, Rusesabagina declined to respond to the charges, saying he had denied the accusations to Rwandan investigators.

Amnesty International criticised the lack of transparency surrounding his arrest and urged Rwandan authorities to conduct a fair trial. Human Rights Watch said Rusesabagina had been “forcibly disappeared”, which, it said, suggested authorities did not believe that their evidence or guarantees of a fair trial would stand up to scrutiny under international law.

Spotlight: New Middle East

United States: On Tuesday, trumpets and cymbals sounded across the South Lawn of the White House as Donald Trump hosted a ceremony to sign agreements to normalise ties between Israel and two Arab states, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

“After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” Trump said.

The deals, called the Abraham Accords, formalise the growing co-operation – which had previously been largely unofficial – between Israel and the Sunni-led Gulf states, prompted by a shared concern about Iran’s regional reach and ambitions. Only two other Middle Eastern Arab states – Egypt and Jordan – have recognised Israel since its founding in 1948.

The signings were attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Bahrain and the UAE were represented by their Foreign ministers.

The Palestinians have strongly objected to the accords, which ended the previous consensus among Arab states that they would not recognise Israel until Israel withdraws from the West Bank. During the ceremony, Palestinian militants in Gaza launched rockets at Israeli cities.

The deal comes as Netanyahu faces growing domestic pressure over his handling of the coronavirus. Israel is facing a serious second wave and this week became the first country to return to a nationwide lockdown. For three weeks, residents will not be allowed to travel more than 500 metres from home, except for work or medical reasons or to buy essential items. On Monday, Israel recorded 4764 new cases, compared with lows of fewer than 10 in May after the first lockdown. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "Trump denies link between climate change and wildfires".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.