BBC 2024-02-13 18:01:34


Gaza ceasefire talks resume as Rafah under fire

Negotiations for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza have resumed in Cairo, Egyptian media say.

Senior officials from the US, Israel, Egypt and Qatar are meeting as Israel faces strong international pressure to stop its bombardment of the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

About 1.5 million people are crammed into this small border town, amid fears of an Israeli ground offensive.

Israel’s PM rejected as “delusional” ceasefire proposals by Hamas last week.

Benjamin Netanyahu said “total victory” was possible in Gaza within months.

He later ordered Israeli troops to prepare to expand their ground operation, and vowed to defeat Hamas gunmen hiding in Rafah.

But UN human rights chief Volker Türk said any assault on the city would be “terrifying” and many civilians “will likely be killed”.

US President Joe Biden has called for civilians in the area to be protected.

Rafah has come under heavy Israeli air strikes in recent days, with deaths and injuries reported.

The discussions in Cairo are continuing despite Israel’s rejection of Hamas’s terms.

Mr Netanyahu has sent his intelligence chief, David Barnea, to the talks to try to make further progress – Israeli media said he did so under American pressure.

He is joined by the head of the US Central Intelligence Agency William Burns, Egyptian intelligence officials and Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

There is a framework for a temporary truce on the table, involving releasing Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a period of calm.

Qatar and Egypt, with US support, have been going back and forth between Israel and Hamas to try to broker a deal.

Israel says 130 hostages are still unaccounted for out of the 253 taken by Hamas-led gunmen during the 7 October attacks on southern Israel. A number of hostages have been released – including most recently two male Israeli-Argentines – but some have died.

At least 1,200 people were killed during the Hamas-led attacks.

Israel launched military operations in the Gaza Strip in response to them. Some 28,473 Palestinians have been killed and more than 68,000 wounded in Gaza since 7 October, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.

More than half of the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.3 million is now crammed into Rafah, on the border with Egypt, which was home to only 250,000 people before the war between Israel and Hamas.

Many of the displaced people are living in makeshift shelters or tents in squalid conditions, with scarce access to safe drinking water or food.

  • Israel’s Rafah assault looms, but with no plan yet for civilians
  • Palestinians sheltering in Rafah fear Israeli offensive
  • Israel-Gaza war: Death and Israel’s search for ‘total victory’

Alongside the US, a number of countries and international organisations have warned Israel against launching its planned offensive.

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron on Monday said Israel should “stop and think seriously” before taking further action in Rafah.

EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged allies of Israel to stop sending weapons, as “too many people” were being killed in Gaza.

And on Tuesday South Africa asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to consider whether the planned Israeli offensive required additional emergency measures to protect Palestinians’ rights.

Last month the ICJ ordered Israel to take all measures to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza, in a case brought by Pretoria.

Uphill battle for $95bn foreign aid bill in US House

The US Senate has approved a $95bn (£75.2bn) foreign aid package after months of political wrangling, but it faces an uphill battle in the House.

While Senate Democrats were in favour of passing the bill, Republicans were divided and previously voted it down.

The package includes $60bn for Ukraine, $14bn for Israel’s war against Hamas and $10bn for humanitarian aid in conflict zones, including in Gaza.

But the House of Representatives Speaker suggested he might block it.

The package, which also includes more than $4bn in funds for America’s Indo-Pacific allies, passed the Democratic-controlled Senate despite also facing criticism from former President Donald Trump.

Lawmakers voted 70 to 29 to approve the package. Twenty-two Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined most Democrats to approve the legislation.

“History settles every account,” Mr McConnell, a Kentucky senator, said in a statement following the vote. “And today, on the value of American leadership and strength, history will record that the Senate did not blink.”

Ukraine’s leader said he was “grateful” to senators.

“For us in Ukraine, continued US assistance helps to save human lives from Russian terror. It means that life will continue in our cities and will triumph over war,” President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Fighting in Ukraine has broadly reached a stalemate, despite some skirmishes amid Russian attempts to advance in the eastern Donbas region and Ukrainian attacks in the south.

Officials in Kyiv have repeatedly told Western governments that they need fresh military aid, emphasising in particular a desire for new air defences after President Vladimir Putin pledged to “intensify” Russia’s air war.

The vote came after an all-night Senate session during which several Republican opponents made speeches in a bid to slow down the process.

“Shouldn’t we try to fix our own country first?” Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said on Monday.

Some left-wing lawmakers, including Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, also voted against the bill, citing concerns about supporting Israel’s bombing of Gaza.

The aid package is a stripped-down version of a $118bn package that Senate Republicans voted down last week.

Republicans had initially demanded that any foreign aid be tied to more security measures at the southern border.

But after Mr Trump came out against the border provisions, Republicans were divided on the package.

Some lawmakers suggested border measures could be added back into the current version of the legislation.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson suggested in a statement on Monday night the new bill would not pass the Republican-controlled lower chamber of Congress without such provisions.

“House Republicans were crystal clear from the very beginning of discussions that any so-called national security supplemental legislation must recognise that national security begins at our own border,” he said.

The Louisiana congressman said lawmakers “should have gone back to the drawing board” with the legislation to focus on border security.

Mr Johnson and the House Republican leadership will have to decide whether to bring the package to a vote in that chamber, attempt to amend it and send it back to the Senate, or to ignore it entirely.

That last option could prompt those House Republicans who support Ukraine military assistance to join Democrats in filing a discharge petition.

This is a rare parliamentary procedure that would circumvent Mr Johnson and force a vote.

Some on the left may baulk at the military aid for Israel in the package, however, making such a manoeuvre – which requires the support of a majority of the House – more difficult.

After the Senate vote, Mr Johnson said his chamber “will have to continue to work its own will on these important matters”.

He could divide the different pieces of aid into separate components, or add conservative US immigration reforms.

Mr Johnson will be hard-pressed to convince his narrow House majority, which is sharply divided on aid to Ukraine, to follow his lead, however.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hailed the passage of the bill on Tuesday. He said the Senate was “telling Putin he will regret the day he questioned America’s resolve”.

President Joe Biden applauded the measure, too, saying it would allow the US “to stand up for Ukraine’s freedom and support its ability to defend itself against Russia’s aggression”.

The US is one of the largest providers of aid to Ukraine. The White House asked Congress months ago to pass a bill that included foreign aid.

This could be Congress’s last shot at passing Ukraine aid for the foreseeable future, and Ukraine has warned it may not be able to successfully defend itself against Russia without Washington’s backing.

Polar bears face starvation threat as ice melts

Some polar bears face starvation as the Arctic sea ice melts because they are unable to adapt their diets to living on land, scientists have found.

The iconic Arctic species normally feed on ringed seals that they catch on ice floes offshore.

But as the ice disappears in a warming world, many bears are spending greater amounts of time on shore, eating bird’s eggs, berries and grass.

However the animals rapidly lose weight on land, increasing the risk of death.

  • ‘Polar-bear capital’ warms too fast for the bears
  • Migrating species crucial to planet under threat
  • World breaches 1.5C warming threshold for full year

The polar bear has become the poster child for the growing threat of climate change in the Arctic, but the reality of the impact on this species is complicated.

While the number of bears plummeted up to the 1980s this was mainly due to unsustainable hunting.

With greater legal protection, polar bear numbers have risen. But increasing global temperatures are now seen as their biggest threat.

That’s because the frozen Arctic seas are key to their survival.

The animals use the sea ice as a platform to hunt ringed seals, which have high concentrations of fat, mostly in late spring and early summer.

But during the warmer months many parts of the Arctic are now increasingly ice-free.

In Western Manitoba where this study was carried out, the ice-free period has increased by three weeks between 1979 and 2015.

To understand how the animals survive as the ice disappears, researchers followed the activities of 20 polar bears during the summer months over a three-year period.

As well as taking blood samples, and weighing the bears, the animals were fitted with GPS-equipped video camera collars.

This allowed the scientists to record the animals movements, their activities and what they ate.

In the ice-free summer months, the bears adopted different strategies to survive, with some essentially resting and conserving their energy.

The majority tried to forage for vegetation or berries or swam to see if they could find food.

Both approaches failed, with 19 of the 20 bears in the study losing body mass, by up to 11% in some cases.

On average they lost one kilogramme per day.

“Regardless of which strategy they were trying to use, there was no real benefit to either approach as far as being able to prolong the period that they could survive on land,” according to lead author Dr Anthony Pagano, from the US Geological Survey in Alaska.

“Polar bears are not grizzly bears wearing white coats,” said co-author Charles Robbins from the Washington State University Bear Center.

“They’re very, very different.”

Two of the three bears that took to the water found carcasses of dead animals but spent only a short time eating, as they were too tired from their exertions.

“One sub-adult female found a dead beluga whale, she took a couple of bites from it, but she mostly used it as a buoy to rest on,” Dr Pagano told BBC News.

“It really suggests to us that that these bears can’t eat and swim at the same time.”

Key polar bear facts

  • There are about 26,000 polar bears left in the world, with the majority in Canada. Populations are also found in the US, Russia, Greenland and Norway.
  • Polar bears are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with climate change a key factor in their decline.
  • Adult males can grow to be around 3m long and can weigh close to 600kg.
  • Polar bears can eat up to 45kg of blubber in one sitting.
  • These bears have a powerful sense of smell and can sniff out prey from up to 16km away.
  • These animals are strong swimmers and have been spotted up to 100km offshore, they can swim at speeds of around 10km per hour, due in part to their paws which are slightly webbed.

An intriguing finding in the study was that one bear gained 32kg in weight.

The researchers believe that this bear, who had spent much of his time resting and conserving his strength, was fortunate to stumble across an animal carcass.

While previous research has outlined the challenges that climate poses over the decades to come, this new work raises important questions about the species’ ability to adapt.

However other researchers say the impacts of climate change on polar bears would differ, depending on location.

“It is likely polar bears will disappear from areas where sea ice will be lost in future, but difficult to say just when and where,” said Jon Aars from the Norwegian Polar Institute who was not involved in the study.

“Some areas will have good conditions for bears also many decades from now.”

“The area of this study is one where conditions may be very difficult for bears within a short time, if sea ice continues to disappear as predicted.”

The study has been published in Nature Communications.

The reinvention of a loaded US symbol

From “Marlboro Man” and John Wayne to Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams – the cowboy hat, the ultimate US emblem of rugged masculinity, is now being subverted.
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For Beyoncé fans, Sunday’s Super Bowl was a joyous affair. Appearing in an advert for a mobile phone company, the singer teased new music, before dropping two new singles – Texas Hold ‘Em and 16 Carriages – and the release date for her second album in the Renaissance trilogy later that night. Both the singles and their cover art – which show the star decked in two different black cowboy hats – confirmed suspicions that the Houston-born artist would adopt a country theme for her newest release, due on 29 March.

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Of course, the cowboy hat is not a new accessory for Beyoncé: the Renaissance tour has become synonymous with the mirror-ball iteration she sported both for the live show and its promotional shots, while archive photos of Destiny’s Child show her taste for the ten-gallon hat dates back to the start of her career.

Musician Lil Nas X sported a bright pink cowboy hat at the 2020 Grammy Awards (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet Beyoncé’s current embrace of the Western aesthetic both galvanises and plays into a wider trend, one that journalist and cultural critic Brittany Luse described last year as “a collective and proud reclamation of the cowboy for those who have traditionally felt threatened or excluded by the archetype of the white, patriarchal, ruggedly individualistic gunslinger”.

The Marlboro Man was defined by his cool yet commanding attitude – and his wide-brimmed hat

Because the truth is that the cowboy archetype – as embodied by John Wayne and Buffalo Bill – is little more than a myth, perpetuated by mid-20th-Century Hollywood Westerns. In these films, the “goodies” are almost exclusively white Stetson-sporting “cowboys”, while the “baddies” are most commonly Native Americans whom the cowboys wish to conquer. The macho cowboy paradigm was further galvanised by the arrival of the “Marlboro Man” in 1954: that emblem of rugged masculinity dreamed up by the US cigarette company. Of the various Marlboro Men, the almost-always white cowboy was the most recurrent and renowned, defined by his cool yet commanding attitude – and his wide-brimmed hat.

Historically, however, one in four cowboys was black, while many others were of Mexican origin, and their stories were largely written out of US history and imagery. And it is this fact, paired with the iconic nature of the Western aesthetic and the undeniably romantic notion of the cowboy as a self-determined lone ranger, that has rendered the cowboy so ripe for reclamation and reinterpretation across popular culture.

Yeehaw agenda”

This isn’t exclusive to today, of course. In the 1940s and 50s, actress Dale Evans showed that women could be cowboys too, donning her hat on the back of her head so that it framed her curls like a halo and taking the male-dominated Western genre by storm. Dolly Parton later claimed the mantle, giving the cowboy hat a rhinestone-embellished spin, while high fashion has long referenced and subverted the cowboy trend, from Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein through to Moschino and Chanel.

I feel like when you see cowboys portrayed, you see only a few versions – Pharrell Williams

But it wasn’t until 2019 that we officially entered the new age of the cowboy. This was the year that Telfar launched its autumn/winter 2019 collection championing the black cowboy, and that black queer artist Lil Nas X released his chart-topping single Old Town Road, and wore a neon pink Western ensemble, replete with a matching cowboy hat, to the Grammys. Soon, other black artists from Solange and Lizzo to Cardi B and Kelela were reclaiming and reframing the look in cowboy hats, boots, chaps and fringing, giving rise to the trend dubbed the “Yeehaw Agenda” on social media.

Pharrell Williams embraced the cowboy hat in his recent collection for Louis Vuitton (Credit: Getty Images)

And it’s still going strong: earlier this year, Pharrell Williams threw his Stetson in the ring, offering up his take on the movement at the presentation of his sophomore collection for Louis Vuitton in Paris. There, models stomped the runway in looks that gave an urban twist to ranch style, almost every one wearing a version of the cowboy hat, be it in soft suede, traditional felt or slick leather. “I feel like when you see cowboys portrayed, you see only a few versions,” the designer said backstage. “You never really get to see what some of the original cowboys really look like. They look like us, they look like me, they look black, they look Native American.”

Beyoncé, meanwhile, has taken the trend – and its important implications – to even bigger heights. In 2021, she launched a black rodeo-inspired Adidas x Ivy Park collection, explaining to the Houston Chronicle that it was inspired by “how much of the black, brown and Native cowboy stories are missing in American history”.

Moreover, Luse argues in her essay, in adopting the guise of “an intergalactic disco cowboy” for the tour – an image reinforced by the Texas Hold’ Em song artwork – “Beyoncé, a black Texan woman, is both imagining a radical black future and recalling the truth of the past”. And she’s doing so cowboy hat in hand – turning all its associations with white patriarchal colonisers upside down, with no signs of slowing down.

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How unhealthy air changes your body and mind

The air we breathe can have profound effects on our physical and mental health. Is there any way of protecting yourself from this pervasive problem?
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All but 1% of the world’s population is exposed to unhealthy air that exceeds World Health Organization limits for pollutants. In parts of the world, air quality has rapidly improved through policies that aim to limit pollution. But elsewhere, gains in air quality are at risk of being lost.

More than 25% of the US population is exposed to air considered “unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a report by the climate non-profit First Street Foundation. By 2050, the number of people exposed to “unhealthy” days is set to increase by more than half. The worst days of air pollution (“hazardous” or maroon, under the EPA’s system) are expected to rise by 27%.

Wildfire smoke is one of the factors driving this trend. One study of PM2.5 (see fact box: What is PM2.5?) from wildfire smoke found that levels had increased by up to 5 micrograms per cubic metre in the western US in the past decade – enough to reverse “decades of policy-driven improvements in overall air quality”, the authors concluded.

To put this in context – one study found that a quarter of the US’s PM2.5 pollution was caused by wildfire smoke. In western regions, as much as half was caused by smoke. In 2023, large portions of the US saw significant dips in air quality and visibility as smoke from wildfires north of the Canadian border billowed across the continent. With climate change expected to increase the risk of wildfires around the world, it is likely that air quality will also suffer.

People who have existing respiratory conditions and newborns with developing lungs are the most affected by wildfire smoke. (See factbox: “How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke”.)

As climate change makes wildfires more intense, here are some of the profound and unexpected ways air pollution affects our bodies, and what we can do to minimise exposure.

The far-reaching effects of wildfire smoke

Wildfires are not just a local problem to people who live near forests, peatlands and grasslands. Fires can send plumes of smoke up to 14 miles (23km) into the stratosphere, from where they spread all over the globe. In 2023, Siberian wildfires fuelled by unusually warm temperatures released smoke that travelled across the Pacific Ocean to reach Alaska and Seattle.

Wildfire smoke is contributing a large share of PM2.5 pollution in New York (Credit: Getty Images)

The health risks that come with wildfire air pollution depend in part on what’s on fire – in Siberia, 2020, it was resinous boreal forest and peat, releasing record-breaking quantities of pollution, including high quantities of mercury. Another typical pollutant released in wildfires is PM2.5, particulate matter that measures 2.5 micrometres across or less, linked to respiratory conditions. (Read about the risks of PM2.5 and nanoparticle pollution here, and the link between air pollution and respiratory disease here.)

Wildfire smoke has been found to be harmful to certain immune cells in the lungs, with a toxicity four times greater than particulates from other types of pollution. And it gets worse as smoke ages: one study found the toxicity of smoke doubled in the hours after it was first emitted, reaching a peak of four times greater toxicity.

“Even if someone is far away from a fire source, they may still experience adverse health outcomes from the inhalation of highly diluted and oxidised smoke,” Athanasios Nenes, an atmospheric chemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne told Allison Hirschlag for BBC Future.

Read Allison Hirschlag’s full story on the health impacts of wildfire smoke.

How air pollution affects your brain

There is growing evidence that air pollution not only affects our physical health, but also our mental health. It has been linked to impaired judgement, poorer performance in school and even higher levels of crime. Researchers point to prolonged exposure to pollutants such as PM2.5.

But the picture is not a simple one. Exposure to air pollution is far from equal – despite how it might seem, we don’t all breathe the same air. Often the most polluted areas in a city, for example, are in the poorest neighbourhoods. These are areas also afflicted by other problems that affect health, educational achievement and crime levels. Confounding factors such as investment in education, diet, smoking, drug use and alcohol consumption can also have an effect.

Nonetheless, researchers are increasingly concerned about the effect that air pollution may be having on our brains, as Melissa Hogenboom explains in this feature, where you can learn more about the emerging evidence.

Air pollution and weight gain

While the exact mechanism is still debated, it is thought that the inflammation caused by air pollution may also affect the body’s metabolism. Research has linked airborne pollution such as PM2.5 to obesity. Children living in the most polluted areas, for example, are more than twice as likely to be considered obese.

How dirty air is polluting our minds

There is also growing evidence that air pollution may also play a role in the development of related conditions such as type 2 diabetes. One major analysis estimated that a fifth of the global burden of type 2 diabetes could be attributed to exposure to PM2.5 pollution. Other studies have suggested that another type of understudied air pollution, airborne microplastics, could also be disrupting the hormones that regulate our metabolism.

Learn more about how city life affects your health and happiness in this feature by William Park.

Air pollution is harming our sense of smell

Exposure to toxic air may also be eroding our olfaction. A 2021 study found that people who suffered from loss of smell, known as anosmia, in Baltimore, Maryland lived in areas with “significantly high” levels of PM2.5. An Italian study found that the noses of teenagers and young adults became less sensitive to odours following exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a component in traffic fumes.

Hazardous air pollution levels in cities contributes not just to respiratory problems, but conditions including type 2 diabetes (Credit: Getty Images)

Scientists say that pollution particles trigger inflammation and slowly wear away the nerves in the olfactory bulbs, which transmit smell information from the nose to the brain.

Anosmia disproportionately affects older people. A Swedish study also identified a strong association between higher pollution levels and poorer olfaction in people aged 60 and over.

Read more in our feature by Tim Smedley on how air pollution is causing us to lose our sense of smell.

Clean air is not an option for everyone

Almost everyone in the world now breathes air that is polluted in some way. But those who are worst hit by air pollution are also those who are least able to be able to protect themselves or escape from it. An estimated 716 million people with the lowest incomes globally live in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution. Even in the relatively wealthy, developed nations of Europe and North America, the toll taken by air pollution is borne predominantly by those who are least well off or from minority communities that face systemic inequalities.

A major source of these fine particulates is the burning of fossil fuels, and in particular petrol and diesel from vehicles. They can penetrate deep into the lungs and can cross into the blood stream where they are thought to increase levels of inflammation. They have been linked to a number of chronic long-term health issues including heart disease, lung problems and cancers.

In the US, PM2.5 pollution is the largest environmental health threat, with black and minority groups facing greater exposure than non-Hispanic white people. The poorest regions in Europe too tend to experience levels of PM2.5 concentrations that are a third higher than the richest. (Read about the young people fighting the worst smog in Europe.)

You can read more about the story of how air pollution creates environmental inequality around the world in this in-depth feature by Kamala Thiagarajan.

Where can you find the world’s cleanest air?

To map the long journeys that air pollution takes in atmospheric currents, scientists rely on monitoring stations that take near constant samples of air quality. One of those is the Zeppelin Observatory above the tiny town of Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, Norway.

The tiny village of Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard, Norway, is one of the few places in the world with extremely clean air (Credit: Alamy)

This settlement, which boasts a population of just 45 people in winter and is 765 miles (1,230km) from the North Pole, grew up around the coal-mining industry in the first half of the 20th Century. Today, it has some of the cleanest air on the planet.

But that is also changing – levels of methane have been growing in the air around the town, while levels of sulphate, particulates and metals are also spiking.

Another candidate for the world’s most pristine air can be found on the north-western tip of Tasmania, Australia. Cape Grim, or Kennaook, where winds whip across the Southern Ocean unimpeded. As it doesn’t pass over any landmasses or populated areas enroute, the air is unaffected by local sources of pollution such as exhaust fumes. Learn more about Cape Grim in this feature by Dani Wright and find out more about how the air around Ny-Ålesund is changing in this feature by Anna Filipova.

Other remote clean air sites around the world include Mauna Loa station in Hawaii, Macquarie Island and Casey Station in Antarctica.

But for those 99% of us who live far from this pristine air, some of the most impactful changes to help bring down air pollution include lowering emissions in cities from road transport, moving to cleaner ways of cooking, rapidly reducing the use of fossil fuels and a range of ways to prevent wildfires in the first place.

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