BBC 2024-03-05 22:32:37


Super Tuesday: Trump eyes clean sweep in Republican race as millions vote in 15 states

Bernd Debusmann Jr

US reporter

We’re starting to get exit poll data from CBS, the BBC’s US partner, from surveys in three states – Virginia, North Carolina and California.

While it’s still early in the evening, we’re seeing a clear trend: immigration and the economy are the top issues on voters’ minds. The two topics far outweigh abortion and foreign policy.

In North Carolina, for example, 43% of voters picked immigration as their top concern, followed by 31% who chose the economy, 11% who chose abortion and 9% who chose foreign policy.

The numbers were similar in Virginia, where 37% of people who participated in the exit poll chose immigration, compared to 33% for the economy, 11% for foreign policy and 11% for abortion.

Notably, the data suggests that Donald Trump has a significant advantage over Nikki Haley as far as who voters trust to handle the border and the economy. In Virginia, over 60% of people said they believed Trump would do a better job on the issue.

Previous polling has shown that the issues are important to voters – from both sides of the political spectrum – across the US.

ICC issues arrest warrants for top Russian commanders

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for top Russian commanders over alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Sergei Kobylash and Viktor Sokolov, an army lieutenant general and a navy admiral, are the two men named by the ICC.

This is the second round of warrants for Russian officials related to the war in Ukraine.

The first were for President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights envoy.

Russia does not recognise the ICC, making it highly unlikely they will ever be deported to face the charges.

The ICC said the latest warrants were due to there being reasonable grounds to believe that the two suspects were responsible for “missile strikes carried out by the forces under their command against the Ukrainian electric infrastructure”.

The alleged crimes took place between October 2022 and March 2023, the ICC said.

The court said that the attacks caused civilian harm and damage that would have been clearly excessive.

The two men “are each allegedly responsible for the war crime of directing attacks at civilian objects” and are also accused of the “crime against humanity of inhumane acts”, the court said.

Mr Kobylash, 58, was the commander of long-range aviation for the Russian air force at the time of the alleged crimes.

Mr Sokolov, 61, was an admiral in the Russian navy who commanded the Black Sea Fleet during the period to which the charges relate, according to the ICC.

Moscow has in the past denied targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the new warrants.

“Every Russian commander who orders strikes against Ukrainian civilians and critical infrastructure must know that justice will be served,” he posted on social media.

“Every perpetrator of such crimes must know that they will be held accountable.”

Created by a UN treaty in 2002, the ICC investigates and brings to justice those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, intervening when national authorities cannot or will not prosecute.

The treaty has been ratified by 123 countries, but Russia – along with China, India and the US – has refused to join.

In March last year, the ICC issued arrest warrants for President Putin and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.

The court focused those claims on the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.

Moscow denied the allegations and labelled the warrants as “outrageous”.

Gaza aid airdrop: Why delivering food from the air is controversial

The US says it airdropped 36,000 meals into northern Gaza on Tuesday in co-ordination with Jordan – the second such joint mission in recent days.

It came a day after the World Health Organization said children were dying of starvation in the north, where an estimated 300,000 Palestinians are living with little food or clean water.

But the strategy has sparked considerable discussion, with humanitarian organisations saying it cannot meet the soaring needs.

It is also a symbol of the failure of the aid effort on the ground.

Aid lorries have been entering the south of Gaza through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing and the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing during the war between Israel and Hamas. But the north, which was the focus of the first phase of the Israeli ground offensive, has been largely cut off from assistance in recent months.

On 20 February, the World Food Programme (WFP) said it was suspending food deliveries to northern Gaza because its first aid convoys in three weeks had endured “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order”, including violent looting.

Last Thursday, more than 100 Palestinians were killed as crowds rushed to reach an aid convoy operated by private contractors that was being escorted by Israeli forces west of Gaza City.

Palestinian health officials said dozens were killed when Israeli forces opened fire. Israel’s military said most died from either being trampled on or run over by the aid lorries. It said soldiers near the aid convoy had fired towards people who approached them and who they considered a threat.

Israel’s military launched an air and ground campaign in Gaza after Hamas’s attacks on Israel on 7 October, in which around 1,200 people were killed and 253 others were taken hostage. More than 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza since then, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says.

‘Not enough’

More than 20 airdrops of aid into Gaza have taken place over the past few weeks in co-ordination with the Israeli military, with France, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt conducting them alongside the US and Jordan.

One Gaza resident, Ismail Mokbel, told BBC Arabic’s Gaza Lifeline radio – an emergency radio service for the territory set up in response to the conflict – that packages of aid dropped on Friday consisted of some legumes and a few women’s health essentials.

Another man, Abu Youssef, said he was not able to get some aid that was dropped near al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

“Suddenly, when we were looking up into the sky, we saw aid parachutes. So we remained in the place [where we were] until the aid landed about 500 metres away from us. There were many people, but the aid was little, and so we could not get anything.”

Mr Mokbel said not enough aid was dropped to meet the basic needs of the large number of people in the area.

“Thousands of citizens saw the aid falling on them… And when hundreds or thousands wait in such areas, only around 10 to 20 people get things, while the others go back with nothing. Unfortunately, this method of dropping through air is not the most suitable way to transport aid to the north district of Gaza,” he added.

“Gaza needs a land and water pathway to deliver the aid instead of [doing it in] such a manner, which doesn’t meet the needs of all citizens.”

‘Expensive and haphazard’

Initially employed during World War Two to supply isolated troops on the ground, airdrops have evolved into a valuable tool for delivering humanitarian aid, with the UN first using them in 1973.

However, they are considered a “last resort”, only to be used “when more effective options fail”, as the WFP said in a 2021 report. South Sudan is the last place where the WFP carried out airdrops.

“Airdrops are expensive, haphazard and usually lead to the wrong people getting the aid,” Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former UN aid chief, told the BBC after returning from a recent three-day visit to Gaza.

Airdrops are seven times more expensive compared to ground-delivered aid due to costs related to aircraft, fuel and personnel, says the WFP.

In addition to that, only relatively small quantities can be delivered with each flight, in comparison to what a convoy of lorries can bring in, and significant ground co-ordination is required within the delivery zone, says the WFP.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also stresses the importance of controlling distribution to prevent people from risking their lives by consuming inappropriate or unsafe items.

“Delivering sudden and unsupervised types of food to people who are malnourished or even starving can pose serious risks to life. These risks need to be weighed against delivering nothing by air, or the delay a ground distribution may incur,” the organisation warned in a 2016 report published when aid was being airdropped into Syria during the country’s civil war.

Airdrops can be carried out from different altitudes, ranging from about 300m to 5,600m (985-18,370ft) in conflict zones, and so ensuring robust packaging is crucial to make sure parcels can endure impact with the ground, the WFP adds.

According to the agency, drop zones should ideally be large, open areas no smaller than a football field, which is why deliveries have often been aimed at Gaza’s coastline.

However, this has sometimes resulted in aid falling into the sea or being carried by the wind into Israel, according to local accounts.

‘US should pressure Israel’

Gaza resident Samir Abo Sabha told BBC Arabic’s Gaza Lifeline radio that he believed the US should do more and put pressure on its ally Israel for a ceasefire.

“As a citizen of Gaza, this stuff is of no use,” he said. “What we want [is] America to pressure Israel into a ceasefire and to stop giving Israel weapons and missiles.”

Some aid workers have echoed this sentiment.

Last week, Scott Paul of Oxfam America wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “Instead of indiscriminate airdrops in Gaza, the US should cut the flow of weapons to Israel that are used in indiscriminate attacks, push for an immediate ceasefire and the release of hostages, and insist that Israel uphold its duty to provide humanitarian aid, access, and other basic services.”

Melanie Ward of Medical Aid for Palestinians said the US, UK and others should “ensure that Israel immediately opens all crossings into Gaza for aid and aid workers to assist those in need”.

But as the crisis deepens, others argued that food must be delivered by any means necessary.

“We need to bring food into Gaza any way we can. We should be bringing it by the sea,” José Andrés, a chef and founder of World Central Kitchen, which has been sending food to Gaza, told ABC News.

“I don’t think we need to be criticising that Jordan, America are doing airdrops. If anything, we should be applauding any initiative that brings food into Gaza.”

President Biden has vowed that the US will “redouble our efforts to open a maritime corridor, and expand deliveries by land” – but those efforts have not yet translated into reality on the ground.

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on Sunday that they were facilitating aid convoys and airdrops to northern Gaza “because we want humanitarian aid to reach Gazan civilians in need”.

“We will continue expanding our humanitarian efforts to the civilian population in Gaza while we fulfil our goals of freeing our hostages from Hamas and freeing Gaza from Hamas,” he added.

Edited by Alexandra Fouché

The Texas wildfires weren’t caused by drought

The worst wildfire in Texas’ history is leaving wide scars on the landscape. Why is the blaze so extreme?
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Temperatures dropped and snow began to fall on the Texas panhandle, dusting the scorched grasslands, thousands of dead cattle, and hundreds of burnt-out buildings with a fine layer of white powder. It was a welcome relief – and an apocalyptic image – for the state, which has been battling its worst wildfire in history.

The Smokehouse Creek fire, which started on 26 February in Hutchinson County, has so far burned more than 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares), and killed two people and thousands of cattle. On 27 February, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties in response to the wildfire.

Wildfire risk is expected to increase across Texas as climate change brings drier, hotter conditions, according to a 2021 report by Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. The wildfire season will likely last longer in places where there is little rain, such as eastern Texas and areas commonly affected by wildfires may expand eastward, as fuels become drier faster, thanks to a warmer climate.

But the Smokehouse Creek fire did not spread so rapidly and burn so intensely because of any prolonged drought – instead, the flames were exacerbated by a wet winter. The reasons behind this kind of extreme fire behaviour are not quite as clear cut as one might first think.

Why drought did not fuel the Texas blaze

Extreme wildfires have become more common across the US in recent years, primarily thanks to  drought and warming temperatures. But the area where the Smokehouse Creek fire is burning – just north of Amarillo – is not currently in extreme drought like other more southerly areas of Texas.

“Drought has not dominated Texas’s climate nearly as strongly as it has in the region to the west,” says Park Williams, a University College of Los Angeles geography professor. In 2020, Williams published a study which showed the American south-west is currently experiencing a megadroughtthe worst dry period the region has seen since 800AD. But only a “sliver” of Texas was included in the study, Williams says.

The primary reason the Smokehouse Creek fire spread so quickly was due to a relatively wet winter, combined with warm temperatures and high wind speeds, Williams explains.

There are other ingredients for wildfires aside from drought; four “switches” are required: fuel abundance, fuel dryness, source of ignition and suitable conditions for fire spread. In Texas, these switches are often flipped in the first part of the year when it comes to extreme fire: of the 30 largest wildfires in Texas history, 90% occurred between January and May.

There’s still relatively little research on how wet winters impact wildfire intensity. “Climate change may have affected the amount of vegetative growth that provided fuel for the fire,” says Nielsen-Gammon, “but there hasn’t been much work on the subject.”

Why have the fires in Texas been so bad?

Texas generally receives more rainfall in the summer, the warmest part of the year, and it is dry but cold in winter and spring. “In other words, key factors for fires do not line up perfectly: it’s cold when it’s dry but wet when it’s warm,” says Flavio Lehner, assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University in New York says. Except, for this year.

The Smokehouse Creek fire followed an unusual weather period.

In mid-February, the week prior to the fire, cities in the panhandle broke records for high temperatures, hitting 83-85F (28-29C). Then strong, cold winds blew in –  hitting up to 70mph gusts, fanning the flames and pushing the wildfires to the east. Another wind blew in southward, shifting the fires to the south.

“Given the weather pattern and strong winds, climate change would be expected to cause higher temperatures and greater evaporation rates, leading to drier fuels that are easier to ignite and burn,” says Nielsen-Gammon.

Why long-term droughts may lead to more wildfires

Drought does increase the probability of large-scale wildfires by drying out the soil. It also increases fire intensity because more fuel is available to burn, and the drying of organic material in the soil can make suppressing fires much harder.

“Megadroughts can set the perfect scene for large wildfires,” says Danielle Touma, research assistant professor at University of Texas’ institute for geophysics. “It can also make it more difficult to suppress wildfires due to the limited amount of water in the region.”

But there’s a flip side, Touma adds. There can be less vegetation growth due to drought, which would prevent regrowth of vegetation in areas have already been burned. Essentially, if there’s not enough water for vegetation to grow, there’s no fuels for fire to burn.

What is certain however it that higher temperatures and drought conditions in Texas are likely to increase the severity, frequency, and extent of wildfires in the future. A 2020 study warned that water stakeholders should prepare for future droughts that will be unlike anything the region has experienced, as climate projections portray an “unprecedented” drought risk.

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The current blaze shows how severe a fire can be even without these added pressures. Lehner described the growth of the Smokehouse Creek fire as “explosive”.

“It’s not surprising to see wildfires in this area, although the rate at which this one grew and also the area it has burned so far are certainly exceptional,” Lehner says. “Like a lot of grass and shrub-land fires, the wind is the key factor, driving the fire across the landscapes at speeds effectively outpacing fire suppression efforts.”

Texas’ climate is expected to become more fire prone, Lehner says. “It’s more likely than not that conditions favourable for wildfire will become more common in Texas in the future.” The entire state is facing longer and more intense drought conditions, creating “fire weather“.

The uncertainties of a changing climate

But, he adds, climate change is making it harder to foresee how quickly and to what extent Texas will become more vulnerable to wildfire. “Interestingly, with climate change we are observing an eastward shift of the dividing line between these two climate zones, which means Texas’ climate, especially in the panhandle area, is expected to become more fire prone.”

But, as Williams notes, precipitation plays a key role – which can be hard to anticipate.

“How quickly and how strongly this will happen is difficult to say, as it depends a lot on how rainfall patterns will change.” Rainfall is much more challenging to predict than warming temperatures, says Williams, due to the complexity of the processes that generate precipitation. Climate change will also make rainfall even harder to predict.

In this particular region of Texas, the panhandle, where there are extensive grasslands, it is less clear how continued climate change will affect wildfire overall, Williams continues. “In order for warming to have a reliable influence on fire, abundant fuels are needed, and the grassland fuel availability in this region is strongly affected by year-to-year swings in precipitation.”

What does this mean for Texans?

The state is one of the country’s leading exporters of agriculture commodities – 86% of Texas land is in some form of agricultural production and the industry employs one out of every seven working Texans.

“Cattle and crop losses are significant and infrastructure damage is catastrophic,” said Sid Miller, commissioner for the Department of Texas Agriculture. “I know of ranchers who have lost everything. Even those Texans fortunate enough to save their herd may not have anything to return to but ashes.”

The industry was already facing pressure from the widespread drought that gripped the state last year, forcing cattle ranchers to manage smaller herds – which led to higher beef prices and contributed to a decrease in beef production nationally.

That the Smokehouse Creek Fire was not the result of prolonged drought is even more concerning for Texans, but follows the pattern of weather in the state becoming more frequent, more extreme. Data projections predict a significant increase in the land burned by wildfires – for example, by 2050 Colorado is expected to see a 600% increase in areas burned by fire. As always, the key in coping with these events is preparation. Managing the land – through prescribed burns and managing fuels, can decrease fire spread and intensity.

“When you have an unprecedented event like this, there’s a chance that communities are not adequately prepared, as they simply have not experienced this before,” says Lehrer.

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How DEI became a lightning rod for controversy

Diversity, equity and inclusion programmes picked up in the past few years. They’ve brought US companies positive results – but are increasingly caught in the crossfire.
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In the US, as diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have mainstreamed, so has criticism around them. The letters ‘DEI’ themselves – let alone the programmes to implement these principles – have increasingly stirred controversy among high-profile leaders, who’ve taken aim at the concept across both the public and private sectors. Among the loudest opposing voices are hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman and Elon Musk – both billionaires with large social media followings – who launched their attacks beginning late 2023.

DEI is a set of principles designed to make people of various backgrounds – including socio-economic class, race, gender and physical ability – feel supported, welcomed and safe. In a business context, it’s meant to set up marginalised workers for the same success as their peers. These programmes are an integral part of many businesses’ core strategies, yet the mere mention of them has pitted politicians and powerful executives against proponents of DEI policies and the leaders who implement them.

Companies have implemented advancement programmes for minority workers for decades, but the term ‘DEI’ mainstreamed following the 2020 murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. In response to public pressure for corporate social accountability in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many firms including Google, Nike and Wells Fargo began appointing chief diversity officers to oversee their newly minted – and widely publicised – DEI efforts.

Beyond a show of solidarity, these DEI programmes proved to be a boon for positive publicity and resulted in the creation of jobs: in 2021, the first year after the Black Lives Matter protests, companies listed on the S&P 100 added more than 300,000 jobs – 94% of which went to people of colour. The initiatives were also successful for business itself: in 2022, McKinsey & Company reported that companies with robust DEI programmes were better able to respond to challenges, win top talent and meet the needs of different customer bases.

Now, many workers and employers alike have been left wondering why these largely successful programmes are attracting so much backlash – and whether their days are numbered.

Nike was among the first swath of American companies who appointed executives to spearhead DEI efforts (Credit: Alamy)

A deep-rooted history

Although the visibility of DEI initiatives reached fever pitch in the past years, the concept of equal opportunity in the workplace isn’t new. Lily Zheng, DEI strategist, consultant and author of DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right, traces the emergence of the term back to the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1965. The EEOC enabled individuals to report companies engaging in workplace discrimination on the basis of gender, race, age, pregnancy and more.

Zheng says growing awareness of discrimination in the workplace – and the increasing threat of legal action – led many businesses and institutions to incorporate policies that centred the rights and advancement of minority and marginalised groups. Zheng dates the adoption and widespread use of the terms ‘diversity’, ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ to roughly between the 1990s and early 2020s.

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DEI boosts the bottom line for many companies, according to both experts and data. Research shows major firms with women and people of colour at the helm outperform their homogenous peers. A 2020 McKinsey & Company analysis of 1,000 US firms showed companies with more gender diversity within their leadership teams were 25% more likely to have higher profits than their peers who did not. The report also showed companies with the most ethnic and cultural diversity achieved 36% higher profitability than companies with a less diverse C-suite.

As businesses rapidly globalise, DEI is becoming even more important for many firms. US companies that manufacture in America might, for example, have engineers working in Asia, which means employees who can work cross-culturally will be an asset, says Michele Williams, associate professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.

Companies with more gender diversity within their leadership teams were 25% more likely to have higher profits than their peers who did not

And domestically, as the population of the US continues to rapidly diversify, the demographics of American workplaces will change as well, says Gisele Marcus, professor of practice in diversity, equity and inclusion at Washington University in St Louis. Companies that actively engage a diverse pool of talent now will be the most nimble in the future, she says.

Echoes of the past

Amid the past three years of widespread layoffs, DEI programmes and the professionals who led them took a blow. Looking for cost savings, many companies dismantled DEI-focused initiatives, and in some cases, eliminated entire departments responsible for the advancement of marginalised workers. Many of the employees who found themselves in the crosshairs were workers of colour, particularly women.

Cuts proliferate. After reaching their peak in early 2023, DEI positions dipped 5% by the end of last year, according to a Revelio Labs analysis shared with The Washington Post. Despite a hiring spree, companies have either shed or struggled to retain their chief diversity officers.

As workers increasingly pushed back on DEI in business, companies responded with programmes for hiring and advancement – but many are now being targeted (Credit: Getty Images)

Some people and firms are now fatigued following George Floyd’s death, the “guilt” brought by America’s racial dialogue and the subsequent surge in DEI interest, says Malia Lazu, a lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Firms that rushed to make reactionary public commitments about their DEI goals were not equipped to properly execute them, she adds.

Businesses have offered their own reasons for cutting back on DEI. Marcus says companies are minimising their DEI efforts in response to claims such programmes give marginalised groups preferential treatment. Many firms are worried about finding themselves as the targets of anti-DEI litigation, which is becoming increasingly common as the voices of detractors are amplified in the larger cultural conversation. Because of that threat of public scrutiny, “people are nervous”, says Marcus – even though typical DEI initiatives have most likely been reviewed for their legality.

These concerns may be warranted. In August 2023, the Fearless Fund, an Atlanta-based venture capital firm that supports underfunded start-ups founded by black women, was sued by the American Alliance for Equal Rights, an organisation that challenges “distinctions and preferences made on the basis of race and ethnicity”. The plaintiffs alleged the fund was discriminatory because it excluded entrepreneurs who aren’t black women, and thus violates the Civil Rights Act of 1866, according to court filings reviewed by the BBC. In February, Fearless Fund CEO Arian Simone told reporters the company has lost “millions of dollars” as a result of the lawsuit.

Because of the threat of public scrutiny on their DEI programmes, “people are nervous”, says Gisele Marcus

This DEI backlash doesn’t surprise Zheng, who sees parallels in the current rhetoric to criticism of US diversity initiatives of the past. Zheng likens it to the response to President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 executive order calling for the elimination of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination, commonly referred to as “affirmative action”. Some aspects of the mandate attracted criticism, especially as many public and private institutions moved to install quotas to comply. As tension mounted throughout the years, the policy came under fire as “reverse racism”.

DEI’s next act         

Despite a climate that’s increasingly putting pressure on both the language and practice of DEI, research suggests companies plan to continue their work in the space.

A Morning Consult survey released in January showed 82% of business executives think diversity initiatives are critical to their business strategies, and 67% said they expect these efforts to become more important in the coming years. The survey also showed nearly half of executives said their primary reason for implementing diversity initiatives is to “improve business performance”, acquire better talent (43%) and increase creativity (38%). Only 2% of business leaders surveyed said such initiatives aren’t important. 

And although some firms have scaled back their DEI efforts, many companies with these initiatives don’t plan to axe them. A December 2023 survey of nearly 200 US chief human resources officers from The Conference Board showed none of the respondents planned to reduce their DEI initiatives, policies or programming. Nearly two-thirds expect to focus their efforts on attracting diverse employees. 

Yet some companies are still walking on eggshells as the environment remains hostile. Marcus says firms may not discuss DEI work as openly, and may instead be quieter about financial commitments to DEI work, or drop the terminology altogether. Ultimately, however, experts are confident efforts will keep going – even if they’re labelled something else, or nothing at all. After all, powerful voices may be loud – but bottom lines speak volumes.