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Sensemaker, 15 October 2020

Thursday 15 October 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • President Macron announced a four-week Covid curfew for Paris while London prepared for new restrictions on Saturday.
  • Six named Russian individuals face EU sanctions over the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
  • Trump and Biden are to appear in simultaneous TV “town halls” on separate channels tonight after the cancellation of their second debate.

Confirmation bias. Amy Coney Barrett will take her next step towards the US Supreme Court today. The Senate committee hosting her confirmation hearings will take a preliminary vote on whether to hold a final vote, and she’ll win it. Barring a political earthquake she’ll then be confirmed next month as the first woman supreme court justice who is also publicly religious and a social conservative. But just because the outcome is all but inevitable doesn’t mean the hearings haven’t been momentous. They will:

  • install a 6-3 conservative majority in a court which, if 2020 turns out anything like 2000, could be called on to adjudicate on the outcome of the presidential election;
  • enable Trump to present himself to evangelicals and social conservatives over the next three weeks as the president who did most to help long-term efforts to erode abortion rights;
  • put someone who sounds like a climate sceptic on the court: asked yesterday if she believed climate change was happening, she declined to answer on the basis that it was a controversial matter of policy, rather than science.

Otherwise, Barrett has managed not to engage on questions intended to unpack her personal views. In particular she wouldn’t be drawn on the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare bill that Trump dreams of overturning in a second term largely because it’s nicknamed Obamacare. In fact she hinted that she wouldn’t support striking it down in its entirety, on the basis that judges should keep parts of laws if they can, even if other parts are invalidated by legal challenges.

It’s worth, finally, returning to the question of her nomination. Is it really a shoe-in? Almost certainly, but remember that Republican Senators facing tough re-election fights in Maine, South Carolina and elsewhere are finding that slavish adherence to the Trump agenda – including Barrett’s warp-speed nomination – isn’t endearing them to swing voters. And last weekend Barrett received an open letter from nearly 200 staff at her alma mater, Notre Dame, imploring her to heed the last wish of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who she’s replacing, and halt the process until after the election. Will she listen? Probably not, but you never know.

In the app today… In the latest installment of our file on Happy the elephant and animals’ rights, Simon Barnes argues (from his hut on the edge of the Norfolk Broads) for every species’ right to exist. Have a read. Join our Responsible Business Summit, which continues until 4pm today, and sign up for our Sensemaker Live ThinkIn tomorrow lunchtime at which we’ll discuss America’s place in the world after four years of Trump.

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Climate-related pay
Banks and businesses talk a good game on net-zero targets, but do they put their money where their mouths are? Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney says they ought to. In a talk at the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative roundtable on Tuesday, he called for bankers’ executive pay to be linked to the achievement of climate targets, thereby incentivising senior leaders to fulfil their environmental pledges. Are such incentives enough? In our Responsible Business Summit today we’ll be asking whether it’s time for regulations and penalties for businesses that fail to meet these goals. Do join us.


New things technology, science, engineering

Collision at 17,000 mph
Or should that be 34,000? A new satellite-tracking station in New Zealand set up to warn us about orbital traffic accidents says two ancient pieces of space junk, one Russian and one Chinese, could collide today over the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic. Each is moving at about 17,000 mph but apparently in opposite directions, which would mean they’re closing in on each other at double that. Leo Labs, which runs the tracking station, says they have a 20 per cent chance of hitting each other. Can we rule out the cascade of collisions known as the Kessler effect, which could theoretically destroy just about everything in low earth orbit? Let’s hope so.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Keeping on digging
BHP is going ahead with a mining project near the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia despite the backlash its rival Rio Tinto provoked by destroying two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters there in May, says BHP’s chairman, Ken MacKenzie. An Australian parliamentary inquiry has heard that 86 archaeological sites could be at risk from BHP’s South Flank iron ore operations in the Pilbara region. MacKenzie told his AGM these operations would always have indigenous peoples’ “free, prior and informed consent” and that “just because we get approval to disrupt [these sites] doesn’t mean we’re going to”. BHP ranks 42nd on the Tortoise Responsibility 100 Index – the highest of eight mining firms in the FTSE 100.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Test, trace, consult, bill
The UK government’s test and trace programme has been an expensive endeavour, and private-sector consultants have taken a big slice of the pie. Ed Conway of Sky News reports that the government paid a group of 40 consultants from the Boston Consulting Group £10 million for four months work on the NHS test and trace programme, with some senior consultants receiving a day rate of around £7,000. Documents seen by Sky show that even more consultants (165 of them) will be posted to work on the Operation Moonshot mass-testing plan over the next few months. Initiatives by councils in Cumbria and elsewhere have shown that local knowledge trumps the centralised government programme when it comes to successful contact tracing – and likely comes a lot cheaper than a group of high-end consultants.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Back to war
So much for peace in Afghanistan. At least 35,000 civilians have fled their homes in Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province to escape a flare-up in fighting between Taliban forces and the Afghan national army. The Taliban attacked Lashkar Gah, the regional capital, less than a month after the start of peace talks in Kabul. Part of the context is a long-term US effort under Trump to reduce America’s military presence to a minimum. That strategy could change next month: as Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden championed suppressing the Taliban with drones. It was an alternative to military occupation, but it was not withdrawal.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill