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Sensemaker: The big two

Sensemaker: The big two

What just happened

Long stories short

  • BP reported record annual profits for 2022 of $28 billion.
  • Google-parent Alphabet unveiled Bard, its ChatGPT rival powered by artificial intelligence.
  • Manchester City was charged with over 100 alleged breaches of the Premier League’s financial rules.

The big two

The death toll from two massive earthquakes that hit southeastern Turkey yesterday has passed 5,000. Tens of thousands are injured and many more left homeless. The suffering inflicted on those living near the epicentres and over the border in Syria is even more acute than it might otherwise have been, for four main reasons:

Codes. Turkey’s disaster management agency estimates 5,600 buildings have collapsed. Most of those seen imploding on video posted on social media either predate 2000 or were not built to code. New building regulations introduced by Ankara after the 1999 Izmit earthquake left 17,000 people dead have been patchily enforced at best. Nor were older buildings required to retrofit to comply. A national earthquake strategy and action plan published in 2012 said breakneck migration to low-quality urban housing in the 1950s meant large Turkish populations were still “critically vulnerable”.

War. Syria’s civil war is frozen but not over. The earthquakes were felt as far off as Cairo but Syria’s worst-affected region is its northwestern corner, still held by rebels, where the UN says more than four million people already depended on humanitarian aid after 12 years of fighting. The Assad regime has allowed only one border-crossing from Turkey to the rebel-held zone to remain open for aid, and yesterday Syria’s ambassador to the UN refused to open more.

Timing. The first earthquake struck at 4.17 am local time near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, killing thousands in their sleep. By the time of the second, at 1.24 pm, most of the new homeless were in temporary shelters. But it came as a sucker punch for rescuers seen streaming off pancaked buildings where they were searching for survivors. 

Tectonics. Yesterday’s disaster had been coming for millennia, at 2 cm per year – the rate at which the Arabian and Anatolian plates have been moving past each other, loading up pressure where they touch.

  • Strike one. That pressure was released in a 7.8 magnitude event at the southwest end of the East Anatolian Fault, a fracture zone likened to California’s San Andreas Fault. President Erdogan said it was Turkey’s worst earthquake since 1933. Seismologists said it was the world’s deadliest since Haiti’s in 2010.
  • Strike two. Nine hours later and 100 km to the northeast, the second earthquake registered magnitude 7.5 and was almost certainly triggered by the first. As Durham University’s Mark Allen tells the FT, “releasing the stress on one fault zone can load up the stress on another”. 

Both were shallow, detonating 18 km and 11 km respectively below the earth’s surface and intensifying their impact on structures there. Much of Gaziantep’s ancient hilltop castle was reduced to rubble.

The weather is not helping: a winter storm on Sunday night blanketed much of the region in snow. Temperatures at or near zero will complicate search and rescue efforts and could shorten survival times for those trapped but still alive.

There is no sense to be made of earthquakes. Lisbon’s in 1755 killed up to 50,000 and helped seed the enlightenment by confounding those who tried to reconcile their loss with the idea of a just God. As Voltaire wondered, “Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found / Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?”

But there is experience to bear in mind. The lesson of Syria’s war is that its newly displaced people will suffer where they are or migrate to Turkey, which for now is welcoming all the international help it can get. The lesson of Haiti is that the death toll will grow even after the search for survivors ends, because of gangrene. 


Blood money
Norway’s parliament is expected to approve a plan to send $7 billion in military and civilian aid to Ukraine over the next five years. That would make it one of the world’s biggest donors to Kyiv’s war effort after the US and the EU. The funds would come mainly from oil and gas revenues, which have soared thanks to the war. State revenues from energy taxes and corporate profits from energy sales are of course entirely different things. Still, it’s worth noting that profits posted in the past two weeks for 2022 by Chevron, Exxon, Shell and BP total $159 billion.


Digital pound
The Bank of England and the Treasury are designing a “digital pound” as an alternative to cash that could be launched by the end of this decade. Right now, there isn’t really a need: people are already used to making fast digital payments using their debit cards, phones and watches. But this is about hedging against the future risk of private companies keeping payments within a closed network. A final decision on whether to go ahead will be taken around 2025. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

California’s insulin
Insulin is an essential drug for millions of people around the world with diabetes. But in the US, which has one of the highest rates of the disease, one in six of those who need insulin are self-rationing supplies because of the cost. Although production costs are less than $10 a vial, consumer prices can be up to $300. Biden will announce a price cap on insulin for all Americans in his State of the Union – but previous attempts to disrupt the market federally have faltered. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, thinks he has the answer: 1) produce a public generic insulin to lower the state’s costs as a purchaser; 2) put a cost limit on insulin across the state for consumers; and 3) join other states in suing pharmaceutical companies for artificially inflating prices. Will it work? Maybe – but it will take time. If it does, the door could be opened for lowering the costs of other essential medicines. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Cry me an atmospheric river
During the Arctic’s cold, dark winter months, sea ice should be recovering from the summer melt and expanding over a wider area. But in recent decades the total area of Arctic sea ice has fallen dramatically. Why? A new study published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests part of the answer is that atmospheric rivers have been reaching the region more frequently. These are long, powerful streams of moisture that transport warm water vapour from the tropics. Warm air can carry more water vapour, so as the planet warms these storms become more common, even in places like the Arctic, says Pengfei Zhang, one of the study’s authors, which found that the storms caused a third of the Arctic’s winter sea loss from 1979 to 2021. 


Lucky and grateful
Salman Rushdie says he feels lucky to still be here. In his first interview since being attacked on stage last year in New York, leaving him blind in his right eye, he tells the New Yorker his “overwhelming feeling is gratitude”. Forced into hiding after Iran’s then-leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwā calling for his assassination in 1989, Rushdie had returned to a life of relative normality by the time of last year’s attack. Does he regret letting his guard down? “Well, I’m asking myself that question,” he says, “and I don’t know the answer to it … In a way, you can’t regret your life.” Watch out for Matt d’Ancona’s review of Victory City, Rushdie’s 15th novel, in his final Creative Sensemaker this Thursday.

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jess Winch, Phoebe Davis and James Wilson.

Photographs Getty Images

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