The World Today for December 21, 2017



For the Sake of Us

Start a discussion about ecosystems that are vital to the Earth’s survival and folks will undoubtedly mention the Amazon, polar glaciers, the Great Barrier Reef and the African savannahs where elephants and other animals roam.

But scientists recently discovered a 56,000-square-mile wilderness that they say could be vital to containing the greenhouse gases causing climate change: the peatlands along the Congo River.

Peat is decayed vegetation and other organic matter that has settled in watery bogs. As the Washington Post reported, researchers previously thought peat mostly existed in cold, northern environments like the British Isles and Canada. It seems it also can be found in Central Africa.

That’s good news insofar as peatlands make up only 3 percent of the planet’s land area but store as much as all the carbon found in living plants and animals.

But it’s also bad news because the desperately poor people living along the Congo River are cutting down the trees that make the peatlands possible at rate of around 2.4 million acres a year.

“They [peatlands] can release an enormous amount of carbon and contribute to climate change,” British scientist Simon Lewis told the Post. “They are really a pivotal part of the global question about how we manage ecosystems in the future to reduce our emissions to zero.”

The people along the Congo aren’t the only ones chopping down trees.

A new initiative that uses satellite images to record real-time deforestation found that people burned down around 60,000 soccer fields’ worth of trees since October this year, likely to clear land for agriculture, Reuters reported.

Corporations that produce palm oil, a popular ingredient in numerous food products, are making little or no progress on a 2014 pledge to reduce deforestation while draining peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia to grow plants for the oil, the Independent said.

The knock-on effects are surprising. In Australia, for example, deforestation is causing runoff into the Great Barrier Reef, where water quality is already causing an unprecedented die-off of the creatures in the undersea ecosystem, wrote the Guardian.

Some people are acting.

American, European and Japanese companies are scrutinizing or halting wood imports from countries like Papua New Guinea where illegal logging is scarring the land, the Financial Times reported.

The Irish Times noted that Ireland’s climate change watchdog has also called on the country to cut down on its use of peat because the dirty fuel is hampering the Emerald Isle’s climate change goals.

But, put into context, those efforts are like fighting tides that are slowly but inexorably rising.



Thumb Meets Nose

Poland defied European Union threats of economic sanctions and revoking its voting rights in the bloc by signing into law a controversial overhaul of the judicial system that will force two-fifths of the nation’s Supreme Court justices to retire and give politicians sway over court appointments.

The decision to push ahead closely followed a European Commission recommendation that the EU invoke Article 7 of the EU treaty – popularly known as “the nuclear option” – to stymie the proposed law, Bloomberg reported.

Designed to protect the EU’s fundamental values, Article 7 includes procedures to declare a “clear risk of a serious breach” or a more grave “serious and persistent breach” and suspend a member’s voting rights. It has never been implemented.

On Wednesday, the European Commission said there’s a “clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law” in Poland. If Article 7 is invoked, four-fifths of the EU’s member countries would have to agree to declare a “clear risk.” But moving beyond that requires a unanimous vote by the EU’s other 27 countries, and Hungary has vowed to block such a maneuver.


Changing the Rules

The Ugandan parliament voted to amend the constitution, allowing President Yoweri Museveni to seek another term at the polls in 2021 and perhaps setting him up to become president for life.

Now 73 years old, Museveni would otherwise have been ineligible to contest, due to a constitutional provision that set an age limit of 75 years for the country’s president. Legislators approved the amendment removing the limit by a vote of 315-62 Wednesday after a long debate, Reuters reported.

Amid the proceedings, police blocked two legislators who opposed the amendment from entering the parliament to serve court documents that would have required House speaker Rebecca Kadaga to explain to a judge “the irregular suspension” of six members – all opposed to the amendment – who were suspended on Monday for alleged disorderly conduct.

Earlier, the battle over the amendment had descended into a brawl in the debating chamber.

The amendment also reinstates a two-term limit that had previously been scrapped to allow Museveni to continue his rule, that will come into effect only after the 2021 elections – allowing him two more five-year terms.



Canada’s prime minister got his first dose of kryptonite on Wednesday, as the country’s conflict-of-interest and ethics commissioner ruled his family vacation on a private island owned by the Aga Khan and two other trips made by him or members of his family violated Canada’s conflict-of-interest law.

This year, Trudeau said he would spend this holiday season at an official residence a short drive from Ottawa and in the Canadian Rockies, the New York Times reported.

Commissioner Mary Dawson didn’t impose any penalty, but the ruling tars the squeaky clean image Trudeau has tried to project. A billionaire philanthropist and the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, the present Aga Khan is a French-British business tycoon whose private development network works toward improving health and education and conserving the environment and architectural and cultural heritage. Dawson found he was not a personal friend of Trudeau, and there were ongoing official dealings with the Aga Khan, so the trip was an ethical violation.

Trudeau made a public apology and vowed to clear such trips with the ethics commissioner before booking future holidays, CBC reported.


Eye in the Sky

High security risks and an ongoing war on the ground in Afghanistan have left many archeologists unable to access the wealth of history the region has to offer.

But modern technology’s about to change all that.

Through the use of military drones, spy and commercial satellites, as well as the previous archaeological record, American and Afghan archaeologists have been able to analyze myriad dig sites, Science Magazine reported.

With funding from the US Department of State, researchers at the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership have recorded 4,500 archaeological features using state-of-the-art technology – like the fact that the region was an important trade route for more than a millennium.

Most of the new discoveries were caravanserais, or dwellings used to accommodate travelers and merchants along the trade route, built from the early centuries B.C.E. until the 19th century.

A closer look at the settlements revealed that the northern part of Afghanistan was densely populated amid an ancient network of canals that were utilized for transport.

Mapping the finds using an eye in the sky is helping preserve Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and national identity – all from a remote vantage point.

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