The strongmen strike back: Authoritarianism reemerges as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic world

Facial recognition software records the faces of people in China in November 2017. Revolutions in communications technologies, data collection and artificial intelligence have reshaped the competition between liberalism and anti-liberalism. Photo: Gilles Sabri / The Washington Post
Facial recognition software records the faces of people in China in November 2017. Revolutions in communications technologies, data collection and artificial intelligence have reshaped the competition between liberalism and anti-liberalism. Photo: Gilles Sabri / The Washington Post

By Robert Kagan
14 March 2019

(The Washington Post) – Of all the geopolitical transformations confronting the liberal democratic world these days, the one for which we are least prepared is the ideological and strategic resurgence of authoritarianism. We are not used to thinking of authoritarianism as a distinct worldview that offers a real alternative to liberalism. Communism was an ideology — and some thought fascism was, as well — that offered a comprehensive understanding of human nature, politics, economics and governance to shape the behavior and thought of all members of a society in every aspect of their lives.

We believed that “traditional” autocratic governments were devoid of grand theories about society and, for the most part, left their people alone. Unlike communist governments, they had no universalist pretensions, no anti-liberal “ideology” to export. Though hostile to democracy at home, they did not care what happened beyond their borders. They might even evolve into democracies themselves, unlike the “totalitarian” communist states. We even got used to regarding them as “friends,” as strategic allies against the great radical challenges of the day: communism during the Cold War, Islamist extremism today.

Like so many of the theories that became conventional wisdom during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, this one was mistaken. Today, authoritarianism has emerged as the greatest challenge facing the liberal democratic world — a profound ideological, as well as strategic, challenge. Or, more accurately, it has reemerged, for authoritarianism has always posed the most potent and enduring challenge to liberalism, since the birth of the liberal idea itself. Authoritarianism has now returned as a geopolitical force, with strong nations such as China and Russia championing anti-liberalism as an alternative to a teetering liberal hegemony. It has returned as an ideological force, offering the age-old critique of liberalism, and just at the moment when the liberal world is suffering its greatest crisis of confidence since the 1930s. It has returned armed with new and hitherto unimaginable tools of social control and disruption that are shoring up authoritarian rule at home, spreading it abroad and reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within. [more]

The strongmen strike back

U.S. falls to 19th in World Happiness Report, continuing slow decline since at least 2000 – “This year’s report provides sobering evidence of how addictions are causing considerable unhappiness and depression in the U.S.”

World dynamics of happiness, 2005-2018. The three panels show the global and regional trajectories for life evaluations, positive affect, and negative affect. The whiskers on the lines in all figures indicate 95% confidence intervals for the estimated means. Graphic: World Happiness Report 2019
World dynamics of happiness, 2005-2018. The three panels show the global and regional trajectories for life evaluations, positive affect, and negative affect. The whiskers on the lines in all figures indicate 95% confidence intervals for the estimated means. Graphic: World Happiness Report 2019

NEW YORK, 20 March 2019 – As in 2018, Finland again takes the top spot as the happiest country in the world according to three years of surveys taken by Gallup from 2016-2018. Rounding out the rest of the top ten are countries that have consistently ranked among the happiest. They are in order: Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. The US ranked 19th dropping one spot from last year.

This year, the Report analyzes how life evaluations and emotions, both positive and negative, have evolved over the whole run of the Gallup World Poll, starting in 2005-2006. For life evaluations at the national level, there have been more gainers than losers.

When you factor in population growth, world happiness has fallen in recent years, driven by the sustained downward trend in India. As for emotions, there has been a widespread recent upward trend in negative affect, comprising worry, sadness and anger, especially marked in Asia and Africa, and more recently elsewhere.

Among the 20 top gainers in life evaluations from 2005-2008 to 2016-2018, 10 are in Central and Eastern Europe, five are in sub-Saharan Africa, and three in Latin America. The 10 countries with the largest declines in average life evaluations typically suffered some combination of economic, political, and social stresses. The five largest drops since 2005-2008 were in Yemen, India, Syria, Botswana and Venezuela.

This year’s happiness report focuses on happiness and the community: how happiness has evolved over the past dozen years, with a focus on the technologies, social norms, conflicts and government policies that have driven those changes. Special chapters focus on generosity and prosocial behaviour, the effects of happiness on voting behavior, big data, and the happiness effects of internet use and addictions.

Life Satisfaction and voting in the French 2017 presidential election. Lines show the smoothed weighted average of the proportion of people voting for Marine Le Pen at each level of life satisfaction and at different quintiles of income (‘revenue’). Data: Algan, et al., 2018. Graphic: World Happiness Report 2019
Life Satisfaction and voting in the French 2017 presidential election. Lines show the smoothed weighted average of the proportion of people voting for Marine Le Pen at each level of life satisfaction and at different quintiles of income (‘revenue’). Data: Algan, et al., 2018. Graphic: World Happiness Report 2019

“The world is a rapidly changing place,” said Professor John Helliwell, co-editor of the report. “How communities interact with each other whether in schools, workplaces, neighborhoods or on social media has profound effects on world happiness.”

The World Happiness Report 2019, which ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be, according to their evaluations of their own lives, was launched today at the United Nations. The report was produced in partnership with The Ernesto Illy Foundation.

“We are living a moment of transition to a new age and this generates a sense of uncertainty,” said Andrea Illy, Chairman of illycaffè and Member of the Board of Fondazione Ernesto Illy. “Social happiness is therefore even more relevant, in order to give a positive perspective and outlook for the present and for the future.”

The chapter by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network focuses on the epidemic of addictions and unhappiness in America, a rich country yet one where happiness has been declining rather than rising.

General happiness, U.S. adults, General Social Survey, 1973-2016. Even as the United States economy improved after the end of the Great Recession in 2009, happiness among adults did not rebound to the higher levels of the 1990s, continuing a slow decline ongoing since at least 2000. Graphic: World Happiness Report 2019
General happiness, U.S. adults, General Social Survey, 1973-2016. Even as the United States economy improved after the end of the Great Recession in 2009, happiness among adults did not rebound to the higher levels of the 1990s, continuing a slow decline ongoing since at least 2000. Graphic: World Happiness Report 2019

“This year’s report provides sobering evidence of how addictions are causing considerable unhappiness and depression in the US,” Sachs said. “Addictions come in many forms, from substance abuse to gambling to digital media. The compulsive pursuit of substance abuse and addictive behaviors is causing severe unhappiness. Government, business, and communities should use these indicators to set new policies aimed at overcoming these sources of unhappiness.”

The report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) with the support of the Ernesto Illy Foundation, is edited by Professor John F. Helliwell of the University of British Columbia and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research; Professor Richard Layard, co-director of the Well-Being Programme at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance; and Professor Sachs, director of SDSN and the Earth Institute’s Center on Sustainable Development. Policy applications of happiness research are collected in a companion SDSN publication Global Happiness Policy Report 2019.

According to Professor Sachs, “The World Happiness Report, together with the Global Happiness and Policy Report offer the world’s governments and individuals the opportunity to rethink public policies as well as individual life choices, to raise happiness and wellbeing. We are in an era of rising tensions and negative emotions (as shown in Chapter 2) and these findings point to underlying challenges that need to be addressed.”

General happiness, U.S. 8th, 10th, and 12th graders (ages 13 to 18), 1991-2017. Happiness and life satisfaction among United States adolescents, which increased between 1991 and 2011, suddenly declined after 2012. Thus, by 2016-17, both adults and adolescents were reporting significantly less happiness than they had in the 2000s. Graphic: World Happiness Report 2019
General happiness, U.S. 8th, 10th, and 12th graders (ages 13 to 18), 1991-2017. Happiness and life satisfaction among United States adolescents, which increased between 1991 and 2011, suddenly declined after 2012. Thus, by 2016-17, both adults and adolescents were reporting significantly less happiness than they had in the 2000s. Graphic: World Happiness Report 2019

The World Happiness Report 2019 includes the following chapters:

  • Chapter 2 Changing World Happiness: by John Helliwell, Haifang Huang and Shun Wang, presents the usual national rankings of life evaluations, supplemented by global data on how life evaluations, positive affect and negative affect have evolved on an annual basis since 2006, and how the quality of government and various forms of conflict have influenced those evaluations.
  • Chapter 3 Happiness and Voting Behaviour: by George Ward, considers whether a happier population is any more likely to vote, to support governing parties, or support populist authoritarian candidates.
  • Chapter 4 Happiness and Prosocial Behavior: An Evaluation of the Evidence by Lara Aknin, Ashley Whillans, Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn, shows that engaging in prosocial behavior generally promotes happiness, and identifies the conditions under which these benefits are most likely to emerge.
  • Chapter 5 The Sad State of US Happiness and the Role of Digital Media: by Jean Twenge, documents the increasing amount of time US adolescents spend interacting with electronic devices, and presents evidence that it may have displaced time once spent on more beneficial activities, contributing to increased anxiety and declines in happiness.
  • Chapter 6 Big Data and Well-Being: by Paul Frijters and Clément Bellet, asks big questions about big data. Is it good or bad, old or new, is it useful for predicting happiness, and what regulation is needed to achieve benefits and reduce risks?
  • Chapter 7 Addiction and Unhappiness in America: by Jeffrey Sachs, surveys a number of theories of addiction, presents evidence of rising US prevalence of several addictive behaviours, and considers a variety of possible causes and cures.

In presenting these results at the launch, coeditor John Helliwell noted that “over the seven years of World Happiness Reports, there has been a steady increase in the level and sophistication of reader interest. At first, readers mainly wanted to see how countries ranked. Now we see ever-increasing interest in using the happiness lens to help understand what makes for happier homes, schools, workplaces, and communities, and to use these findings to help make lives better everywhere.”

Contact

Finland Again is the Happiest Country in the World

Cyclone Idai could be the Southern Hemisphere’s deadliest storm – 2.6 million people in need of immediate aid, more than 1,000 feared dead – “Everything is destroyed, everything”

People await rescue on a roof in Beira, Mozambique, after flooding from Cyclone Idai, 18 March 2019. Photo: Rick Emenaket / Mission Aviation Fellowship / AFP / Getty Images
People await rescue on a roof in Beira, Mozambique, after flooding from Cyclone Idai, 18 March 2019. Photo: Rick Emenaket / Mission Aviation Fellowship / AFP / Getty Images

By Ishaan Tharoor
20 March 2019

(The Washington Post) – We don’t know how many people have died since Cyclone Idai made landfall last Thursday on the coast of Mozambique before barreling west into Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Aerial photography and drone footage have shown the apocalyptic scenes left in the cyclone’s wake: Fields of crops were ruined, rising floodwaters tore bridges off their moorings, mudslides smashed roads and whole villages were swept away. Survivors found themselves trapped on new “islands,” surrounded by the brackish waters that obliterated their homes.

The United Nations estimated that more than 2.6 million people are in need of immediate assistance. Aid officials believe the tropical storm damaged or destroyed some 90 percent of the Indian Ocean port of Beira, Mozambique’s fourth-largest city. Though the country’s authorities placed the official death toll at under 100 so far, President Filipe Nyusi spoke to local media after flying over affected areas in a helicopter and said that “everything indicates that we can have a record of more than 1,000 dead.” In Zimbabwe, the official death toll stood at 98; in Malawi, it’s at 56 — but the actual figures may take months to determine.

“The region affected by Idai is one of the poorest in the world,” wrote my colleague Max Bearak, who was en route to the ravaged city on Wednesday. “Infrastructure was already lacking, and the storm has destroyed key public institutions like hospitals and water sources.” Beira is a major entry point for food and gas inland; its paralysis raised fears of possible shortages across the region at a time when resources are already deeply strained.

Timber company workers were stranded by a washed out bridge in Chimanimani in eastern Zimbabwe by floodwaters from Cyclone Idai, on 18 March 2019. Photo: Zinyange Auntony / AFP / Getty Images
Timber company workers were stranded by a washed out bridge in Chimanimani in eastern Zimbabwe by floodwaters from Cyclone Idai, on 18 March 2019. Photo: Zinyange Auntony / AFP / Getty Images

Rescue efforts were hampered by collapsing infrastructure, poor telecommunications and heavy rains that continued through Tuesday. A giant storm surge, reported to be above 19 feet in some areas, transformed Beira — a city of half a million people — into a woeful waterworld, largely cut off from the rest of the country. According to the New York Times, the main highway into the city is impassable, while debris and toppled trees clog up other secondary roads.

“Everything is destroyed, everything,” said Deborah Nguyen, a World Food Program official, to The Post. “When I got here on Sunday, you could see the tops of palm trees in rural areas. Now it is just an inland ocean. The rain isn’t stopping anytime soon.” Her organization is nevertheless still attempting to airdrop food to stranded communities.

If the death tolls rise to the levels suggested by Nyusi and others, then Idai may prove an epochal event. “If these reports, these fears, are realized, then we can say that this is one of the worst weather-related disasters — tropical cyclone-related disasters — in the Southern Hemisphere,” Clare Nullis, a spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization, told reporters. [more]

Cyclone Idai could be the Southern Hemisphere’s deadliest storm


Rooftops and tops of palm trees poke out from underneath flood waters from Tropical Cylone Idai's storm surge and river floods in Beira, Mozambique, 18 March 2019. Photo: MozSARescue
Rooftops and tops of palm trees poke out from underneath flood waters from Tropical Cylone Idai’s storm surge and river floods in Beira, Mozambique, 18 March 2019. Photo: MozSARescue

By Dr. Jeff Masters
18 March 2019

(Weather Underground) – An extreme humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Mozambique, where catastrophic Tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall on Thursday evening as a Category 2 storm with 110 mph winds. Mozambique president Filipe Nyusi told Mozambican radio on Monday that he had seen “many bodies” floating in the overflowing Pungwe and Busi rivers, and “it appears that we can register more than 1,000 deaths.”

Aerial survey images show that the coast of central Mozambique where Idai made landfall suffered severe damage from all three of the major hazards of a tropical cyclone: wind, storm surge, and flooding rains. As Idai approached the coast, the stronger left eyewall of the storm moved over Beira (population 530,000) near the time of high tide, driving a large storm surge into the city. Beira is Mozambique’s fourth largest city, and second largest port. The city is very low-lying, with portions lying below sea level. The city has no power, no communications, and flooded access roads, though the airport has some limited accessibility.

A list compiled Monday by AFP from official sources puts the death toll from Idai’s landfall in Mozambique at 68, including 55 in Beira alone. These deaths are in addition to the 66 deaths recorded in northern Mozambique the week before Idai’s landfall, due to flooding from the tropical disturbance that developed into Idai. Flooding from that disturbance also killed 56 people in Malawi. Cuamba, Mozambique received 11.14” of rain in just 12 hours on March 7 from the tropical disturbance that become Idai.

Seven-day satellite-estimated rainfall amounts for Idai. Rainfall in excess of two feet (pink colors) fell in central Mozambique, with up to foot (dark red colors) in eastern Zimbabwe. This map does not show the heavy rains in excess of a foot that Idai’s precursor tropical disturbance dumped over northern Mozambique and southern Malawi before 11 March 2019. Graphic: NASA
Seven-day satellite-estimated rainfall amounts for Idai. Rainfall in excess of two feet (pink colors) fell in central Mozambique, with up to foot (dark red colors) in eastern Zimbabwe. This map does not show the heavy rains in excess of a foot that Idai’s precursor tropical disturbance dumped over northern Mozambique and southern Malawi before 11 March 2019. Graphic: NASA

Zimbabwe: at least 98 dead

Idai brought up to a foot of rain to eastern portions of Zimbabwe near its border with Mozambique. The resulting floods have killed at least 98 people, with 217 missing and 102 injured, said government officials on Monday. Zimbabwe’s death toll from Idai is expected to rise, since the hardest-hit district of Chimanimani remains inaccessible due to damaged roads and main access bridges that have been washed away.

According to EM-DAT, this is the second deadliest flood on record for Zimbabwe. The deadliest was in January 2017, when 251 people died from flooding due to Tropical Cyclone Dineo. [more]

Tropical Cyclone Idai’s Death Toll in Mozambique May Exceed 1,000

Sharp rise in methane levels threatens world climate targets – “What we are now witnessing is extremely worrying”

Global monthly mean atmospheric methane 1984-2018. Graphic: NOAA
Global monthly mean atmospheric methane 1984-2018. Graphic: NOAA

By Robin McKie
17 February 2019

(The Guardian) – Dramatic rises in atmospheric methane are threatening to derail plans to hold global temperature rises to 2C, scientists have warned.

In a paper published this month by the American Geophysical Union, researchers say sharp rises in levels of methane – which is a powerful greenhouse gas – have strengthened over the past four years. Urgent action is now required to halt further increases in methane in the atmosphere, to avoid triggering enhanced global warming and temperature rises well beyond 2C.

“What we are now witnessing is extremely worrying,” said one of the paper’s lead authors, Professor Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway, University of London. “It is particularly alarming because we are still not sure why atmospheric methane levels are rising across the planet.”

Methane is produced by cattle, and also comes from decaying vegetation, fires, coal mines and natural gas plants. It is many times more potent as a cause of atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide (CO2). However, it breaks down much more quickly than CO2 and is found at much lower levels in the atmosphere.

During much of the 20th century, levels of methane, mostly from fossil fuel sources, increased in the atmosphere but, by the beginning of the 21st century, it had stabilised, said Nisbet. “Then, to our surprise, levels starting rising in 2007. That increase began to accelerate after 2014 and fast growth has continued.”

Studies suggest these increases are more likely to be mainly biological in origin. However, the exact cause remains unclear. Some researchers believe the spread of intense farming in Africa may be involved, in particular in tropical regions where conditions are becoming warmer and wetter because of climate change. Rising numbers of cattle – as well as wetter and warmer swamps – are producing more and more methane, it is argued.

This idea is now being studied in detail by a consortium led by Nisbet, whose work is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. This month the consortium completed a series of flights over Uganda and Zambia to collect samples of the air above these countries.

“We have only just started analysing our data but have already found evidence that a great plume of methane now rises above the wetland swamps of Lake Bangweul in Zambia,” added Nisbet.

However, other scientists warn that there could be a more sinister factor at work. Natural chemicals in the atmosphere – which help to break down methane – may be changing because of temperature rises, causing it to lose its ability to deal with the gas.

Our world could therefore be losing its power to cleanse pollutants because it is heating up, a climate feedback in which warming allows more greenhouse gases to linger in the atmosphere and so trigger even more warming. [more]

Sharp rise in methane levels threatens world climate targets


NOAA CH4 mole fraction and δ13C CH4 data (open circles) for four atmospheric regions, 1999-2018, and fits to the data using a running budget analysis (lines) to mid 2018. The black line is for optimization of sources while removal rates are not changed; the solid brown line has sources constant after 2002 and optimizes annual changes in removal rates with OH limited to ±5%, and Cl and Soil removal limited to ±20%. Graphic: Nisbet, et al., 2019 / Global Biogeochemical Cycles
NOAA CH4 mole fraction and δ13C CH4 data (open circles) for four atmospheric regions, 1999-2018, and fits to the data using a running budget analysis (lines) to mid 2018. The black line is for optimization of sources while removal rates are not changed; the solid brown line has sources constant after 2002 and optimizes annual changes in removal rates with OH limited to ±5%, and Cl and Soil removal limited to ±20%. Graphic: Nisbet, et al., 2019 / Global Biogeochemical Cycles

ABSTRACT: Atmospheric methane grew very rapidly in 2014 (12.7±0.5 ppb/yr), 2015 (10.1±0.7 ppb/yr), 2016 (7.0± 0.7 ppb/yr) and 2017 (7.7±0.7 ppb/yr), at rates not observed since the 1980s. The increase in the methane burden began in 2007, with the mean global mole fraction in remote surface background air rising from about 1775 ppb in 2006 to 1850 ppb in 2017. Simultaneously the 13C/12C isotopic ratio (expressed as δ13CCH4) has shifted, in a new trend to more negative values that have been observed worldwide for over a decade. The causes of methane’s recent mole fraction increase are therefore either a change in the relative proportions (and totals) of emissions from biogenic and thermogenic and pyrogenic sources, especially in the tropics and sub‐tropics, or a decline in the atmospheric sink of methane, or both. Unfortunately, with limited measurement data sets, it is not currently possible to be more definitive. The climate warming impact of the observed methane increase over the past decade, if continued at >5 ppb/yr in the coming decades, is sufficient to challenge the Paris Agreement, which requires sharp cuts in the atmospheric methane burden. However, anthropogenic methane emissions are relatively very large and thus offer attractive targets for rapid reduction, which are essential if the Paris Agreement aims are to be attained.

SIGNIFICANCE: The rise in atmospheric methane (CH4), which began in 2007, accelerated in the past four years. The growth has been worldwide, especially in the tropics and northern mid‐latitudes. With the rise has come a shift in the carbon isotope ratio of the methane. The causes of the rise are not fully understood, and may include increased emissions and perhaps a decline in the destruction of methane in the air. Methane’s increase since 2007 was not expected in future greenhouse gas scenarios compliant with the targets of the Paris Agreement, and if the increase continues at the same rates it may become very difficult to meet the Paris goals. There is now urgent need to reduce methane emissions, especially from the fossil fuel industry.

Very strong atmospheric methane growth in the four years 2014‐2017: Implications for the Paris Agreement

Freedom in the World 2019: Democracy in Retreat

Cover of the Freedom House report, “Freedom in the World 2019: Democracy in Retreat”. Graphic: KAL
Cover of the Freedom House report, “Freedom in the World 2019: Democracy in Retreat”. Graphic: KAL

5 February 2019 (Freedom House) – Freedom in the World has recorded global declines in political rights and civil liberties for an alarming 13 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2018. The global average score has declined each year, and countries with net score declines have consistently outnumbered those with net improvements [Full report: Freedom in the World 2019: Democracy in Retreat].

  • A widespread problem: The 13 years of decline have touched all parts of the world and affected Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries alike. Every region except Asia-Pacific has a lower average score for 2018 than it did in 2005, and even Asia declined when countries with less than 1 million people—mostly small Pacific Island states—are excluded. Not Free countries as a group suffered a more significant score drop than Free or Partly Free countries, which also declined.
  • Faltering post–Cold War democratization: The end of the Cold War facilitated a wave of democratization in the late 20th century, but a large share of countries that made progress during that time were unable to maintain it. On average, countries that earned a status upgrade—from Not Free to Partly Free, or Partly Free to Free—between 1988 and 2005 have faced an 11 percent drop in their numerical score during the 13 years of decline.
  • Consolidated democracies slip: Social and economic changes related to globalization have contributed to a crisis of confidence in the political systems of long-standing democracies. The democratic erosion seen among Free countries is concentrated in consolidated democracies—those that were rated Free from 1985 through 2005, the 20-year period before the 13-year decline.
Change in Freedom in the World average score over 13 years, 2005-2018. The 13 years of decline have affected all regions and Freedom in the World subcategories. Graphic: Freedom House
Change in Freedom in the World average score over 13 years, 2005-2018. The 13 years of decline have affected all regions and Freedom in the World subcategories. Graphic: Freedom House

Despite a continued downward trajectory overall, there were several more countries with net improvements in 2018 than in 2017, and a somewhat smaller number with net declines. This does not mean the threat to democracy is coming to an end. Hostile forces around the world continue to challenge the institutions meant to protect political rights and civil liberties, and the damage accrued over the past 13 years will not soon be undone.

Freedom in the World 2019 freedom status changes

Hungary: Hungary’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector since 2010.

Serbia: Serbia’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to deterioration in the conduct of elections, continued attempts by the government and allied media outlets to undermine the independent journalists through legal harassment and smear campaigns, and President Aleksandar Vučić’s de facto accumulation of executive powers that conflict with his constitutional role.

Nicaragua: Nicaragua’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to authorities’ brutal repression of an antigovernment protest movement, which has included the arrest and imprisonment of opposition figures, intimidation and attacks against religious leaders, and violence by state forces and allied armed groups that resulted in hundreds of deaths.

Uganda:Uganda’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to attempts by long-ruling president Yoweri Museveni’s government to restrict free expression, including through surveillance of electronic communications and a regressive tax on social media use.

Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe’s status improved from Not Free to Partly Free because the 2018 presidential election, though deeply flawed, granted a degree of legitimacy to the rule of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had taken power after the military forced his predecessor’s resignation in 2017.

Gains and losses in political rights and civil liberties in 2018. Rights and liberties declined in 68 countries, while only 50 countries made gains. Graphic: Freedom House
Gains and losses in political rights and civil liberties in 2018. Rights and liberties declined in 68 countries, while only 50 countries made gains. Graphic: Freedom House

The United States in decline

Challenges to American democracy are testing the stability of its constitutional system and threatening to undermine political rights and civil liberties worldwide. As part of this year’s report, Freedom House offers a special assessment of the state of democracy in the United States midway through the term of President Donald Trump. While democracy in America remains robust by global standards, it has weakened significantly over the past eight years, and the current president’s ongoing attacks on the rule of law, fact-based journalism, and other principles and norms of democracy threaten further decline.

Having observed similar patterns in other nations where democracy was ultimately overtaken by authoritarianism, Freedom House warns that the resilience of US democratic institutions in the face of such an assault cannot be taken for granted.

Freedom House has tracked a slow overall decline in political rights and civil liberties in the United States for the past eight years, punctuated by an unusual three-point drop for developments in 2017. Prominent concerns have included Russian interference in US elections, domestic attempts to manipulate the electoral system, executive and legislative dysfunction, conflicts of interest and lack of transparency, and pressure on judicial independence and the rule of law.

Freedom in the World net aggregate score for the U.S., 2009-2018. Freedom House has tracked a gradual decline in the total U.S. score. Graphic: Freedom House
Freedom in the World net aggregate score for the U.S., 2009-2018. Freedom House has tracked a gradual decline in the total U.S. score. Graphic: Freedom House
Freedom in the World net aggregate score for the U.S., Hungary, Serbia, Turkey, and Venezuela, 2002-2018. The circles indicate the year when the current ruling party or leader was initially elected. The effects of a leader’s attacks on democratic institutions, while not always apparent at first, can be devastating over time. Graphic: Freedom House
Freedom in the World net aggregate score for the U.S., Hungary, Serbia, Turkey, and Venezuela, 2002-2018. The circles indicate the year when the current ruling party or leader was initially elected. The effects of a leader’s attacks on democratic institutions, while not always apparent at first, can be devastating over time. Graphic: Freedom House

This year, the United States’ total score on the 100-point scale used by Freedom in the World remains the same as in the report covering 2017, with two indicators changing in opposite directions:

  • The score for freedom of assembly improved, as there was no repetition of the protest-related violence that had led to a lower score for the previous two years. In fact, there was an upsurge of civic action and demonstrations on issues ranging from women’s rights and immigration policy to the problem of mass shootings in schools.
  • The score for equal treatment before the law declined due to government policies and actions that improperly restricted the legal rights of asylum seekers, signs of discrimination in the acceptance of refugees for resettlement, and excessively harsh or haphazard immigration enforcement policies that resulted in the separation of children from adult family members, among other problematic outcomes.

The United States currently receives a score of 86 out of 100 points. While this places it below other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it is still firmly in the Free category. Nevertheless, its decline of eight points in as many years is significant. The United States’ closest peers with respect to total Freedom in the World scores are Belize, Croatia, Greece, Latvia, and Mongolia.

Democracy in Retreat

New study establishes link between climate change, conflict, and migration – “In a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources”

Total marginal effect of Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) on conflict for the 2010–2012 period. Graphic: Abel, et al., 2019 / Global Environmental Change

23 January 2019 (UEA) – Research involving a University of East Anglia (UEA) academic has established a link between climate change, conflict, and migration for the first time.
In recent decades climatic conditions have been blamed for creating political unrest, civil war, and subsequently, waves of migration, but scientific evidence for this is limited.
One major example is the ongoing conflict in Syria, which began in 2011. Many coastal Mediterranean countries in Europe have also seen the arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in Africa.
Researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, including Dr Raya Muttarak, also of UEA’s School of International Development, sought to find out whether there is a causal link between climate change and migration, and the nature of it. They found that in specific circumstances, the climate conditions do lead to increased migration, but indirectly, through causing conflict.
The findings, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, suggest that climate change played a significant role in migration and asylum seeking in the period 2011–2015, with more severe droughts linked to exacerbating conflict.
Dr Muttarak, a senior lecturer in geography and international development at UEA, said: “The question of how climatic conditions can contribute to political unrest and civil war has drawn attention from both the scientific community and the media. We contribute to the debate on climate-induced migration by providing new scientific evidence.
“The effect of climate on conflict occurrence is particularly relevant for countries in Western Asia in the period 2010–2012, when many were undergoing political transformation during the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. This suggests that the impact of climate on conflict and asylum seeking flows is limited to specific time periods and contexts.”
The political uprisings of the Arab Spring occurred in countries including Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and Syria, where the conflict led to an ongoing civil war.
In Syria particularly, long-running droughts and water shortages caused by climate change resulted in repeated crop failures, with rural families eventually moving to urban areas. This in turn led to overcrowding, unemployment and political unrest, and then civil war. Similar patterns were also found in sub-Saharan Africa in the same time period.

Asylum seeking flows by world region, 2006–2010 and 2011–2015. Graphic: Abel, et al., 2019 / Global Environmental Change

Co-author Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, of IIASA and Vienna University of Economics and Business, said: “Climate change will not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere. But in a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources.”
The researchers, who also include Guy Abel (IIASA and Shanghai University) and Michael Brottrager (Johannes Kepler University Linz), say that concerns relating to climate change-induced conflict leading to migration should be considered in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
At present the link between climate change and migration is not explicit, and they are not treated as interrelated. Further research is needed to more fully understand migration flows.
Asylum seekers are more likely to be influenced by conflict than usual migrants, so the researchers used data from asylum applications from 157 countries from 2006-2015 to study the patterns. This data was obtained from the United Nations High Commissions for Human Rights (UNHCR).
As a measure of climate conditions in the asylum seekers’ original countries, the team used the Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI), which measures droughts, compared to normal conditions, through identifying the onset and end of droughts, and their intensity, based on precipitation, evaporation, transpiration, and climatic conditions such as temperature. To assess conflict, the team used data on battle-related deaths from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP).
These datasets were fed into the researchers’ modelling framework, along with various socioeconomic and geographic datasets. These included the distance between country of origin and destination, population sizes, migrant networks, the political status of the countries, and ethnic and religious groups.

New study establishes link between climate change, conflict, and migrationConceptual model of climate, conflict, and migration. Graphic: Abel, et al., 2019 / Global Environmental Change

ABSTRACT: Despite the lack of robust empirical evidence, a growing number of media reports attempt to link climate change to the ongoing violent conflicts in Syria and other parts of the world, as well as to the migration crisis in Europe. Exploiting bilateral data on asylum seeking applications for 157 countries over the period 2006–2015, we assess the determinants of refugee flows using a gravity model which accounts for endogenous selection in order to examine the causal link between climate, conflict and forced migration. Our results indicate that climatic conditions, by affecting drought severity and the likelihood of armed conflict, played a significant role as an explanatory factor for asylum seeking in the period 2011–2015. The effect of climate on conflict occurrence is particularly relevant for countries in Western Asia in the period 2010–2012 during when many countries were undergoing political transformation. This finding suggests that the impact of climate on conflict and asylum seeking flows is limited to specific time period and contexts.CONCLUSIONS: […] Our results indicate that there is no empirical evidence backing the existence of a robust link between climatic shocks, conflict and asylum seeking for the full period 2006–2015. The estimates of our model support these causal linkages only for the period 2010–2012, where global refugee flow dynamics were dominated by asylum seekers originating from Syria and countries affected by the Arab spring, as well as flows related to war episodes in Sub-Saharan Africa.Excluding these regions from the analysis provides further statistical evidence, that the link between climate shocks, conflict and subsequent migration flows might rather be interpreted as a local phenomenon and therefore very specific to these regions. Indeed, our study shows that an increase in drought episodes can drive outmigration through exacerbating conflict in a country with some level of democracy. This is confirmed by the finding that climate contributes to conflict only in a specific period of 2010–2012 and specifically to certain countries, particularly those in Western Asia and Norther Africa experiencing the Arab Spring. Climate change thus will not generate asylum seeking everywhere but likely in a country undergoing political transformation where conflict represents a form of population discontent towards inefficient response of the government to climate impacts.

Climate, conflict and forced migration

The retreat of global democracy stopped in 2018 – Or has it just paused?

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2018. The overall global score remained stable in 2018 for the first time in three years. Just 42 countries experienced a decline, compared with 89 in 2017. Encouragingly, 48 improved. Graphic: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index

8 January 2019 (The Economist) – Democracy stopped declining in 2018, according to the latest edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The index rates 167 countries by 60 indicators across five broad categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties. It is stricter than most similar indices: it concludes that just 4.5% of the world’s people live in a “full democracy”. However, the overall global score remained stable in 2018 for the first time in three years. Just 42 countries experienced a decline, compared with 89 in 2017. Encouragingly, 48 improved.In recent years, threats to democracy around the world have become increasingly obvious. The Arab spring fizzled. China’s leader is poised to rule for life. Populists with autocratic tendencies have won elections in the Philippines, Brazil, and Mexico and subverted democratic institutions in Hungary, Turkey, and Poland. Perhaps because the trend is so glaring—strongmen in different countries often copy each other’s tactics, soundbites and scapegoats—voters are not taking it lying down. Political participation improved more than any other measure on the EIU’s index. This is true even in advanced democracies such as the United States, where voters are highly disgruntled. Polarisation in America has led to anger, gridlock and the current government shutdown. According to Gallup polls from January to mid-November 2018, the share of Americans who approve of the way that Congress is handling its job had fallen to an average of 18%, down from 40% in 2000. Perhaps because they are so cross, they are more likely to vote. Turnout at the 2018 mid-term elections was the highest for over 100 years.

Parts of Europe are suffering from a democratic malaise. Italy fell from 21st to 33rd in the rankings after voters elected a populist coalition that seeks to bypass democratic institutions and curtail the civil liberties of immigrants and Roma. Turkey’s score declined for the sixth year in a row as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swept aside most constraints on his power. Russia deteriorated for the tenth year in a row, after the main opposition candidate was barred from running in a presidential election and Vladimir Putin continued to crush civil liberties. Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia saw slight improvements in 2018, mostly reflecting higher scores for political participation.The report warns that all this may be a pause, rather than the end of democracy’s retreat. The global rise in engagement, combined with a continued crackdown on civil liberties such as freedom of expression, is a potentially volatile mix. It could be a recipe for instability in 2019.

The retreat of global democracy stopped in 2018

Earth’s 39 billion-dollar weather disasters of 2018: 4th-costliest on record

Global billion-dollar economic loss events due to weather, 2000-2018. Graphic: Aon

By Dr. Jeff Masters
23 January 2019

(Weather Underground) – Earth was besieged by 39 billion-dollar weather disasters in 2018, the fourth-highest inflation-adjusted number of billion-dollar weather events on record, said insurance broker Aon (formerly called Aon Benfield) in their annual report issued 22 January 2019. Only 2011, with 44 billion-dollar weather disasters, and 2010 and 2013, with 41 each, had more. The annual average of billion-dollar weather disasters is 25 since 1990.The U.S. had the most billion-dollar weather disasters in 2018 of any country, with 16. That’s their second highest total on record, behind the 20 billion-dollar weather disasters of 2017. NOAA has not yet released their final list of billion-dollar disasters for the U.S. in 2018, due to the government shutdown. China had seven billion-dollar weather disasters in 2018.

The combined economic losses (insured and uninsured) from all 394 weather and earthquake disasters catalogued by Aon in 2018 was $225 billion (2018 USD), which is 33% above the 1980 – 2017 inflation-adjusted average of $169 billion. The great bulk of the 2018 total came from weather-related disasters ($215 billion of the $225 billion).

Notable records

Seven billion-dollar droughts hit Earth in 2018, the highest number on record. The previous record was six, in 1999 and 2015.  Total damages from drought in 2018 were in excess of $27 billion, the highest total since 2013.

The most expensive wildfire in world history occurred in 2018: the Camp Fire, which devastated Paradise, California, killing 86 and causing $15 billion in damage. The previous costliest fire in world history was 2017’s Wine Country fire in California, which killed 43 and did $13 billion in damage. The world’s third costliest fire in history also occurred in 2018–the Woolsey fire in Malibu/Thousand Oaks, California, which did $5.8 billion in damage. […]

At least two nations see their costliest weather disasters in history

By comparing the Aon Benfield numbers to historical disaster costs at EM-DAT, the International Disaster Database, we see that at least two nations set records for their all-time most expensive weather-related disaster in 2018, both of them related to a regional South American drought. For comparison, three nations had their most expensive weather-related natural disasters in history in 2017, four in 2016, and nine in 2015. Here are the nations that set records in 2018 for their most expensive weather-related disaster in history:

Argentina suffered $3.4 billion in damage (0.5% of GDP) from drought in 2018. Their previous most expensive disaster was a flood in 1985 that cost $3.1 billion (2018 dollars).

Uruguay suffered $500 million in damage (0.9% of GDP) from drought in 2018. Their previous most expensive disaster was a 1999 drought that cost $380 million (2018 dollars). [more]

Earth’s 39 Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters of 2018: 4th-Most on Record

2018 was the fourth-costliest year since 1980 in terms of insured losses – Camp Fire in California caused highest overall wildfire loss on record

Significant loss events in 2018 by overall losses. Wildfire in California caused the highest losses of $16.5 billion. Graphic: Munich Re
Significant loss events in 2018 by overall losses. Wildfire in California caused the highest losses of $16.5 billion. Graphic: Munich Re

By Petra Löw
8 January 2019

(Munich Re) – When compared with the record losses of the previous year from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the indications at the start of 2018 were that it would be a more moderate year. However, the second half of the year saw an accumulation of billion-dollar losses from floods, tropical cyclones in the US and Japan, wildfires and earthquakes. The overall economic impact was US$ 160bn, of which US$ 80bn was insured.

A comparison with the last 30 years shows that 2018 was above the inflation-adjusted overall loss average of US$ 140bn. The figure for insured losses – US$ 80bn – was significantly higher than the 30-year average of US$ 41bn. 2018 therefore ranks among the ten costliest disaster years in terms of overall losses, and was the fourth-costliest year since 1980 for the insurance industry.

In particular, Hurricanes Michael and Florence in the Atlantic, and Typhoons Jebi, Mangkhut and Trami in Asia, all left their mark. Overall losses from tropical cyclones in 2018 came to roughly US$ 57bn, of which US$ 29bn was insured. There was also an extremely high impact from wildfires in California that produced overall losses of US$ 24bn and insured losses of US$ 18bn. Over the course of the year, 29 events each resulted in an overall loss of US$ 1bn or more.

Roughly 50% of global macroeconomic losses from natural catastrophes in 2018 were insured, a significantly higher percentage than the long-term average of 28%. North America accounted for 68% of insured losses, Asia for 23% and Europe for 8%. The remaining losses of less than 1% were divided between South America, Africa, Australia, and Oceania.

Payouts by the insurance industry helped to boost catastrophe resilience, in other words the ability after a disaster to return to normality as quickly as possible. However, industrialised countries still account for the vast majority of insurance payouts following natural catastrophes. There has been a steadily growing willingness in these countries to take out cover against natural hazards since the 1980s. The situation with insurance protection in emerging and developing countries is quite different, despite the fact that, for financially weak and low-income countries, improving risk management and resilience-building systems is an important way of mitigating the impact of humanitarian disasters and promoting sustainable economic growth.

Insured and uninsured global losses from natural disasters in 2018. Graphic: Munich Re
Insured and uninsured global losses from natural disasters in 2018. Graphic: Munich Re

Regrettably, 10,400 people around the world lost their lives in natural disasters this year. This groups 2018 with the years 2016, 2014, 2000, and three other years in the 1980s, in which the victim toll was around 10,000. Geophysical events accounted for 34% of all fatalities. This is much lower than the 49% figure over the period 1980–2017. Storm events claimed 24% of the victims, roughly the same as the 26% average since 1980. However, the picture was very different for the number of lives lost in flood events; this year’s figure of 35% was substantially higher than the 14% average. The reason for this was large-scale flood events in Asia and Africa.

Earthquakes with and without tsunamis in August, September, and December in Indonesia claimed the lives of over 3,000 people. These proved to be the events with the highest number of fatalities in 2018, followed by floods in India, Japan and Nigeria. Worldwide, 273 people were killed in wildfires over the course of the year. This is the second-highest number in the time series since 1980 and is only surpassed by the extensive fires in Indonesia in 1997, which claimed the lives of 375 people. Heading the list in 2018 were fires in Greece with 100 fatalities and the US with 108.

Number of events

The Munich Re NatCatSERVICE registered 850 events in 2018. Geophysical events such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions accounted for 5% of the total. Storms made up 42%, floods, flash floods and landslides 46%, while 7% fell into the categories of heat, cold and wildfire. Generally speaking, the distribution followed the long-term trend towards a greater number of storms and floods. The continents most affected were Asia (43%), North America (20%), Europe (14%), and Africa (13%).

Munich Re (https://natcatservice.munichre.com/) categorises events from small loss to major disaster according to overall losses and/or number of victims. On this basis, 12% of events in 2018 fall into the highest categories 3 and 4 (severe events and catastrophes). Category 2 makes up 28% and category 1 (small-scale loss events) 60%. This continues the trend towards a greater number of small-scale, high-frequency events with a lower magnitude of loss. This is the category most strongly influenced by reporting, and is therefore subject to the greatest uncertainty.

The Munich Re NatCatSERVICE registered 850 events in 2018. Geophysical events such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions accounted for 5% of the total. Storms made up 42%, floods, flash floods and landslides 46%, while 7% fell into the categories of heat, cold and wildfire. Generally speaking, the distribution followed the long-term trend towards a greater number of storms and floods. The continents most affected were Asia (43%), North America (20%), Europe (14%), and Africa (13%).Munich Re (https://natcatservice.munichre.com/) categorises events from small loss to major disaster according to overall losses and/or number of victims. On this basis, 12% of events in 2018 fall into the highest categories 3 and 4 (severe events and catastrophes). Category 2 makes up 28% and category 1 (small-scale loss events) 60%. This continues the trend towards a greater number of small-scale, high-frequency events with a lower magnitude of loss. This is the category most strongly influenced by reporting, and is therefore subject to the greatest uncertainty.

The year in figures – Regional

North America (including Central America and the Caribbean): North America was badly hit by two types of event in particular. Firstly, the 2018 hurricane season again resulted in high losses of US$ 31bn, of which US$ 15bn was insured. Hurricanes Michael and Florence were responsible for the bulk of the burden. These losses are admittedly far short of the record overall loss of nearly US$ 230bn in 2017 and insured losses of US$ 93bn. In addition, billion-dollar losses resulted from major wildfires, such as the Carr Fire that devastated California in July/August and the Camp and Woolsey Fires of November. Taken together, these events caused overall losses of US$ 24bn, of which US$ 18bn was insured. A total of 110 people were killed in 15 major wildfires.163 natural catastrophe events were registered across the American continent, producing overall losses of US$ 82bn, of which US$ 53bn was insured. More than 800 people lost their lives. The highest number of fatalities was 165 from the de Fuego volcanic eruption in Guatemala. A heatwave in Canada in June and July, mainly affecting the greater Montreal region, pushed temperatures above 35°C. It is anticipated that there will have been an additional 100 fatalities from this event when compared with average annual mortality.

Significant loss events in 2018 by insured losses. Wildfire in California caused the highest insured losses of $12.5 billion. Graphic: Munich Re
Significant loss events in 2018 by insured losses. Wildfire in California caused the highest insured losses of $12.5 billion. Graphic: Munich Re

South America: South America experienced an extremely low number of natural disasters in 2018. The NatCatSERVICE database registered just 51 significant events. A total of 144 people were killed and losses amounted to some US$ 1bn. There were 72% hydrological events, consisting primarily of flooding, flash floods and landslides. Other categories included storms (20%), earthquakes (6%) and climatological events (around 2%).

Europe: Europe can look back on a loss year that was similar to 2014, 2015 and 2017, with a total of 113 events and overall losses of US$ 16bn (€13.5bn). Some US$ 6bn (€5bn) was paid out in insured losses. In particular, the severe drought that affected large areas of Europe in 2018 resulted in widespread losses in agriculture and forestry. This drought produced an overall loss of around US$ 3.9bn (€3.3bn), making it the year’s costliest event in Europe. Only a small portion of this (US$ 280m or €230m) was insured. In addition, two winter storms, Friederike and Burglind, swept across Europe in January, leaving in their wake overall losses of US$ 4bn (€3.1bn), of which around US$ 3bn (€2.4bn) was insured. In mid-October, the remnants of Tropical Storm Leslie battered France, Portugal and Spain. With wind speeds of up to 170 km/h, accompanied by heavy rainfall, the US$ 350m (€310m) in property damage was mainly caused by flash floods and landslides. Roughly US$ 50m of the total was insured. Shortly afterwards, a further storm developed that primarily affected Italy, Croatia and Slovenia along the Adriatic coast. In some cases, strong gusts of the local Bora wind swept over coastal regions. Losses came to US$ 3.5bn (€3bn), making this the second-costliest event in Europe after the drought. The deadliest events in 2018 also included the wildfires in Greece, which claimed 100 lives, and a cold snap in February and March that led to 77 fatalities.

Africa: Around 100 significant events were registered for the continent of Africa. Almost 1,200 people were killed, the majority in flood events and flash floods in Nigeria and Kenya. Overall losses for 2018 are estimated at US$ 1.4bn. Because of the low insurance density, however, insured losses are extremely low. Asia: Asia was the worst-affected continent in terms of the number of events. It accounted for 43% of all events worldwide and for 74% of fatalities in 2018. Overall losses came to US$ 59bn. This corresponds to roughly 37% of the global loss burden. US$ 18bn of the total was insured, which corresponds to just 24% of insurance industry payouts worldwide. A total of 7,750 people lost their lives in natural disasters in the region, with Japan and Indonesia particularly affected.

In Japan, even though just 14 events were registered, these included five events with losses in excess of one billion dollars. In July, intense rainfall led to flooding, accompanied in some cases by severe flash floods and landslides in a number of major cities, including Hiroshima, Kyoto and Osaka. Overall losses came to US$ 9.5bn and insured losses to US$ 2.4bn. In September, the two tropical storms Jebi and Trami made landfall, causing widespread devastation. Here too, losses mounted up, and together the two storms produced overall losses of US$ 15.9bn, with insured losses of roughly US$ 11.6bn. Two earthquake events also accounted for a substantial portion of the loss burden. In June and September, quakes struck the prefectures of Osaka and Hokkaido, pushing losses up by a further US$ 9bn. Japan suffered US$ 34bn in losses from natural disasters in 2018, of which US$ 16bn was insured.Indonesia was hit extremely hard by tsunami events. These were triggered by earthquakes and undersea landslides that occurred on the slopes of the active volcano Anak Krakatau. In September, a tremor near the city of Palu and a subsequent tsunami killed more than 2,000 people and caused billions of dollars in property damage. Towards the end of the year, a further tsunami occurred after the volcano Anak Krakatau erupted. An underwater landslide triggered a tsunami that claimed more than 400 victims. The loss for insurers is likely to be slight, as few of those affected were insured. Higher insurance penetration in such countries could help them deal more swiftly with the financial consequences of natural disasters.

Australia/Oceania: Around 40 events in Australia and Oceania caused overall losses of approximately US$ 1.5bn, of which US$ 540m was insured. On 20 December 2018, a hailstorm in Sydney caused insured losses of at least US$ 200m, making it one of Australia’s ten largest hail losses of all time. Smaller losses were incurred in Australia and New Zealand from cyclones, storms, wildfires and flash floods. Overall losses from individual events, such as the earthquake in Papua New Guinea in February, and Cyclone Gita on Tonga, remained in the low hundreds of millions of dollars. 164 people lost their lives in the region, the majority of them in the earthquake on Papua New Guinea.

The natural disasters of 2018 in figures

The mysterious life (and death) of Africa’s oldest trees

Life and death of the historic Chapman baobab. a, The Chapman baobab in June 2015, showing its open RSS, which consisted of six stems. b,c, Photographs showing the baobab just after its sudden collapse in January 2016. The tree lies on the ground almost intact, with unbroken stems and branches. Photo: Patrut, et al., 2018 / Nature Plants
Life and death of the historic Chapman baobab. a, The Chapman baobab in June 2015, showing its open RSS, which consisted of six stems. b,c, Photographs showing the baobab just after its sudden collapse in January 2016. The tree lies on the ground almost intact, with unbroken stems and branches. Photo: Patrut, et al., 2018 / Nature Plants

By Jaime Lowe
3 January 2019

(Topic) – The baobab trunks are thick and bulbous and fat. The bark is shiny and red. The trees don’t sway. They don’t whistle with the wind. Movement is slow and barely perceptible, if they move at all. Baobabs can grow to 100 feet tall; their diameters can reach up to 40 feet. For the most part their leaves appear for just a few months during the wet season and look like the unnatural hair that emerges from a chia pet. Their most dynamic motions are during the roughly five minutes at dusk when their night-blooming flowers open for the bats and moths who drink their pollen, and in death, when they topple suddenly and dramatically in just a few hours.

In June 2018, a study was published by the scientific journal Nature Plants; it stated simply that the baobabs are dying. The scientists involved do not know why, but they suspect increased drought and climate change. For decades, villagers in Botswana have witnessed the depletion of baobabs because of human encroachment—cattle grazing and farmland have taken over areas once roamed by hunter-gatherers. The introduction of agriculture and changes to the soil have produced a negative effect on the trees. These trees, which are some of the oldest on the planet, are rooted so solidly into the African horizon, they appear invincible, as if the sun couldn’t set without the silhouettes of their gnarly branches reshaping the line where land meets sky. […]

In 2005, the scientists involved in the Nature Plants study—Stephan Woodborne, associate professor at the University of Pretoria and a researcher at iThemba LABS in Johannesburg, along with six others—set out to study baobabs. This collaboration has yielded a number of different papers, but it was only the last one, in 2018, that captured the global imagination. Woodborne wanted to relate climate models to the samples collected in the field, and Adrian Patrut, the paper’s lead scientist and a professor of chemistry at Romania’s Babeș-Bolyai University, was aiming to carbon-date the trees. They bored holes in old specimens, hoping to find information about the weather over the past millennia. They had heard rumors that some baobabs might be as old as 6,000 years, maybe even older. After cataloguing so many collapsed baobabs, they made another conclusion: that the trees were in peril. They published the ages of trees in the peer-reviewed Nature Plants, along with the alarming fact that nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest baobabs that they sampled had died or partly collapsed in the past 12 years. The reports of the old trees’ deaths led to shocking headlines. The New York Times published a story titled “Last March of the ‘Wooden Elephants’: Africa’s Ancient Baobabs Are Dying”; the Guardian titled its piece “Climate change is wiping out the baobab, Africa’s ‘tree of life’”; National Geographic wrote, “Africa’s Oldest Trees Are Dying, and Scientists Are Stumped.” Patrut told NPR, “Such a disastrous decline is very unexpected. It’s a strange feeling, because these are trees which may live for 2,000 years or more, and we see that they’re dying one after another during our lifetime.”

When visiting iThemba LABS this past October, Woodborne told me that the baobabs he’d studied had appeared healthy and strong, and then they “just fell.” He said, “There is an indescribable stillness—the baobab is just no longer a baobab. And within a year, it disintegrates. There’s just a depression in the earth where the tree was.” In the six or so months since his research was published, Woodborne has lectured extensively around the world about the results. “You give the presentation and people want a happy ending,” he said. “They want to hear that everything will be OK, but it’s not.” […]

The mainstream news stories about baobab demise immediately connected the death of the trees to our current climate crisis. The articles tended to leave out any nuance about what we know, and what we don’t, about the current state of baobabs. The tree was clearly in danger before the results were published; several species of baobabs are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species because of human encroachment. The headlines also left out an important detail of the recent revelations: the published research centered on the tree’s growth within the margins of its territory in the southern parts of the African continent, in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, where temperatures are already warming faster than the global average and drought is intensifying with each year. But the baobab is actually thriving in many parts of northern Africa. Are the baobabs from the study dying because of rising temperatures or because they are old, or both? Does their decline indicate the decline of the species? And what does this mean for the surrounding landscape? [more]

The Mysterious Life (and Death) of Africa’s Oldest Trees


ABSTRACT: The African baobab is the biggest and longest-living angiosperm tree. By using radiocarbon dating we identified the stable architectures that enable baobabs to reach large sizes and great ages. We report that 9 of the 13 oldest and 5 of the 6 largest individuals have died, or at least their oldest parts/stems have collapsed and died, over the past 12 years; the cause of the mortalities is still unclear.

The demise of the largest and oldest African baobabs