Melting glaciers expose bodies of dead climbers on Mount Everest

Scientists have found ponds expanding and joining up on the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal, as global warming increases in the Himalayas. Photo: C. Scott Watson / University of Leeds
Scientists have found ponds expanding and joining up on the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal, as global warming increases in the Himalayas. Photo: C. Scott Watson / University of Leeds

By Navin Singh Khadka
21 March 2019

(BBC News) – Expedition operators are concerned at the number of climbers’ bodies that are becoming exposed on Mount Everest as its glaciers melt.

Nearly 300 mountaineers have died on the peak since the first ascent attempt and two-thirds of bodies are thought still to be buried in the snow and ice.

Bodies are being removed on the Chinese side of the mountain, to the north, as the spring climbing season starts.

More than 4,800 climbers have scaled the highest peak on Earth.

“Because of global warming, the ice sheet and glaciers are fast melting and the dead bodies that remained buried all these years are now becoming exposed,” said Ang Tshering Sherpa, former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association.

“We have brought down dead bodies of some mountaineers who died in recent years, but the old ones that remained buried are now coming out.”

And a government officer who worked as a liaison officer on Everest added: “I myself have retrieved around 10 dead bodies in recent years from different locations on Everest and clearly more and more of them are emerging now.” […]

“Hands and legs of dead bodies have appeared at the base camp as well in the last few years,” said an official with a non-government organisation active in the region.

“We have noticed that the ice level at and around the base camp has been going down, and that is why the bodies are becoming exposed.” [more]

Mount Everest: Melting glaciers expose dead bodies

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. farmers hit by tariffs see crops swept away by flood – Midwest flood risk to persist for months – “The most widespread destruction we have ever seen in our state’s history”

Floodwater surrounds a farm on 22 March 2019 near Craig, Missouri. Midwest states are battling some of the worst floodings they have experienced in decades as rain and snowmelt from the recent "bomb cyclone" has inundated rivers and streams. At least three deaths have been linked to the flooding. Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images
Floodwater surrounds a farm on 22 March 2019 near Craig, Missouri. Midwest states are battling some of the worst floodings they have experienced in decades as rain and snowmelt from the recent “bomb cyclone” has inundated rivers and streams. At least three deaths have been linked to the flooding. Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images

By Jim Salter
23 March 2019

ST. LOUIS (AP) – Even as floodwaters receded in hard-hit places in in the Midwest, experts warned Saturday that with plenty of snow still left to melt in northern states, the relief may only be temporary.

Rainfall and some snowmelt spurred flooding in recent weeks that’s blamed in three deaths so far, with two men in Nebraska missing for more than a week. Thousands were forced from their homes in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, as water broke through or poured over levees in the region. The damage is estimated at $3 billion, and that figure is expected to rise.

As temperatures start to warm, snowmelt in the Dakotas and Minnesota will escalate, sending more water down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries.

Lt. Col. James Startzell, deputy commander of the Corps of Engineers’ Omaha, Nebraska, district, said even warmer temperatures are possible into next week. He urged people living near rivers to be watchful.

Bill Brinton, emergency management director for hard-hit Buchanan County, Missouri, which includes St. Joseph’s 76,000 residents, said his counties and surrounding ones have already been ravaged by flooding.

“There’s a sense from the National Weather Service that we should expect it to continue to happen into May,” Brinton said. “With our levee breaches in Atchison and Holt and Buchanan counties, it’s kind of scary really.” [more]

Experts warn Midwest flood risk may persist for months


Floodwaters surround corn sitting under a collapsed grain bin outside Council Bluffs, Iowa, on 23 March 2019. Photo: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg News
Floodwaters surround corn sitting under a collapsed grain bin outside Council Bluffs, Iowa, on 23 March 2019. Photo: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg News

By Annie Gowen and Frances Stead Sellers
23 March 2019

SIDNEY, Iowa — His farm is still cut off by floodwaters, so Iowa soybean farmer Pat Sheldon had to view the damage from the air. On a helicopter ride over what seemed like an endless stretch of water, he came to a place he recognized as his own land — and saw that one of the grain silos had burst open, spilling yellow soybeans into the dingy, toxic water.

“It was like a punch in the gut,” Sheldon said.

“You work hard planting, taking care of these beans and harvesting them. Then, to have that happen makes you almost physically ill,” he said. “But I haven’t had time to get mad — too many responsibilities and people that need still need help.”

Although the water has yet to recede enough for a true examination, Sheldon says more than $350,000 of his corn and soybeans is in jeopardy, and he worries he may lose the farm that’s been in his family for generations.

Before the terrible “bomb cyclone” sent warm rain down on frozen ground, resulting in catastrophic flooding throughout the Midwest and displacing thousands, American farmers were already struggling after several seasons of low commodity prices and the continuing trade war with China. In towns along the overflowing Mississippi and Missouri rivers, farmers are seeing their crops — and their futures — swept away by floodwaters.

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) has called the flooding “the most widespread destruction we have ever seen in our state’s history.” Iowa has more than 100,000 acres of farmland still underwater. Officials from both states say the damage estimates are more than $1 billion and counting.

“It’s devastating for a lot of these folks, there’s no doubt about it,” said Jeff Jorgenson, a farmer and board member of the Iowa Soybean Association. “Essentially, it’s two years of negative; these farmers lost what was stored in the bins and won’t be able to plant next year’s crop. So it’s going to be really tough for a lot of people.” […]

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned people to prepare for a prolonged disaster.

“The stage is set for record flooding now through May,” said Mary C. Erickson, deputy director of NOAA’s National Weather Service. Edward Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center, called it “potentially an unprecedented flood season.” […]

“We’ve had no real communication from the Corps of Engineers since this started,” said Mike Crecelius, the emergency management coordinator for Fremont County.

He estimates that there have been 14 breaches in their levees alone, causing $147 million in damage — more than $100 million from farm crops and equipment.

“It’s been one big nightmare,” he said. [more]

‘A punch in the gut’: Farmers hit by tariffs see crops swept away by flood

Gene scientists call for moratorium on heritable genome editing – “Genetic enhancement could divide humans into subspecies”

A human embryo at the eight-cell stage. Photo: Yorgos Nikas / SPL
A human embryo at the eight-cell stage. Photo: Yorgos Nikas / SPL

13 March 2019 (Nature) – We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children.

By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban. Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.

To begin with, there should be a fixed period during which no clinical uses of germline editing whatsoever are allowed. As well as allowing for discussions about the technical, scientific, medical, societal, ethical and moral issues that must be considered before germline editing is permitted, this period would provide time to establish an international framework.

Thereafter, nations may choose to follow separate paths. About 30 nations currently have legislation that directly or indirectly bars all clinical uses of germline editing, and they might choose to continue the moratorium indefinitely or implement a permanent ban. However, any nation could also choose to allow specific applications of germline editing, provided that it first: gives public notice of its intention to consider the application and engages for a defined period in international consultation about the wisdom of doing so; determines through transparent evaluation that the application is justified; and ascertains that there is broad societal consensus in the nation about the appropriateness of the application. Nations might well choose different paths, but they would agree to proceed openly and with due respect to the opinions of humankind on an issue that will ultimately affect the entire species.

To be clear, our proposed moratorium does not apply to germline editing for research uses, provided that these studies do not involve the transfer of an embryo to a person’s uterus. It also does not apply to genome editing in human somatic (non-reproductive) cells to treat diseases, for which patients can provide informed consent and the DNA modifications are not heritable.

The 18 signatories of this call include scientists and ethicists who are citizens of 7 countries. Many of us have been involved in the gene-editing field by developing and applying the technology, organizing and speaking at international summits, serving on national advisory committees and studying the ethical issues raised.

Here, we lay out why we think such a moratorium is now warranted, and illustrate how an international framework might work.

The need for a global moratorium

At the first International Summit on Human Gene Editing in December 2015, the organizing committee issued a statement about appropriate uses of the technology (see go.nature.com/2erqwpc). About the issue of making genetically modified children, it concluded that “it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use … unless and until (i) the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved …  and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application”.

This should have been understood to mean that clinical uses of germline editing should not yet proceed anywhere in the world. Yet, subsequent events suggest that this statement was inadequate.

First, in China, biophysicist He Jiankui reportedly edited embryos to create at least two babies. Second, scientists who were apparently aware of this work did not take adequate measures to stop it. Third, there has been growing interest in proposals for genetic enhancement of humans. Fourth, some commentators have interpreted subsequent statements as weakening the requirement for broad societal consensus; such statements include a 2017 report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine5 and a 2018 statement from the organizing committee following the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing (see go.nature.com/2rowv3g). Finally, no mechanism was created in the ensuing years to ensure international dialogue about whether and, if so, when clinical germline editing might be appropriate. [more]

A global moratorium and framework are therefore necessary to ensure proper consideration of the relevant issues surrounding clinical uses of germline editing. [more]

Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing

“Social disaster”: South Korea invokes emergency laws to tackle air pollution after record pollution levels hit the country

A man wearing a mask to protect from air pollution walks along the Han river at a park in Seoul on 12 March 2019. Photo: Lee Jin-man / AP
A man wearing a mask to protect from air pollution walks along the Han river at a park in Seoul on 12 March 2019. Photo: Lee Jin-man / AP

By Justin McCurry
13 March 2019

(The Guardian) – South Korea has passed emergency measures to tackle the “social disaster” being unleashed by air pollution, after record levels of fine dust blanketed most of the country in recent weeks.

The national assembly passed a series of bills on Wednesday giving authorities access to emergency funds for measures that include the mandatory installation of high-capacity air purifiers in classrooms and encouraging sales of liquified petroleum gas vehicles, which produce lower emissions than those that run on petrol and diesel.

The measures will give government officials access to a US$2.65bn emergency fund, as criticism mounts of President Moon Jae-in’s failure to tackle the crisis.

Air pollution has become a key political issue after the concentration of fine dust particles surged to record levels in many parts of the country last week, according to South Korean media.

Seven major cities suffered record-high concentrations of dangerous PM 2.5 particles, according to the National Institute of Environmental Research.

The World Health Organization has warned that air pollution poses a major public health risk due to its links with a host of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

Seoul has already introduced emergency measures, such as limiting vehicle use, curbing the use of coal-fired power stations and cutting the amount of dust generated by building sites and power plants. But they have had little success.

The crisis has also created friction with China, which South Korean public health experts say is responsible for between 50% and 70% of fine dust pollution in the Seoul area, home to almost half the country’s population. Experts say the particles, from Chinese deserts and factories, are carried to the Korean peninsula by prevailing westerly winds. [more]

‘Social disaster’: South Korea brings in emergency laws to tackle dust pollution

U.S. cities burn recyclables after China bans imports – Residents fear rise in pollution from incinerators

A garbage truck drives through a residential neighborhood to get to the Covanta incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania. Photo: Hannah Yoon / The Guardian
A garbage truck drives through a residential neighborhood to get to the Covanta incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania. Photo: Hannah Yoon / The Guardian

By Oliver Milman
21 February 2019

(The Guardian) – The conscientious citizens of Philadelphia continue to put their pizza boxes, plastic bottles, yoghurt containers and other items into recycling bins.

But in the past three months, half of these recyclables have been loaded on to trucks, taken to a hulking incineration facility and burned, according to the city’s government.

It’s a situation being replicated across the US as cities struggle to adapt to a recent ban by China on the import of items intended for reuse.

The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US.

About 200 tons of recycling material is sent to the huge Covanta incinerator in Chester City, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, every day since China’s import ban came into practice last year, the company says.

“People want to do the right thing by recycling but they have no idea where it goes and who it impacts,” said Zulene Mayfield, who was born and raised in Chester and now spearheads a community group against the incinerator, called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living.

“People in Chester feel hopeless – all they want is for their kids to get out, escape. Why should we be expendable? Why should this place have to be burdened by people’s trash and shit?”

Some experts worry that burning plastic recycling will create a new fog of dioxins that will worsen an already alarming health situation in Chester. Nearly four in 10 children in the city have asthma, while the rate of ovarian cancer is 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24% higher, according to state health statistics.

The dilemma with what to do with items earmarked for recycling is playing out across the US. The country generates more than 250m tons of waste a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with about a third of this recycled and composted.

Until recently, China had been taking about 40% of US paper, plastics and other recyclables but this trans-Pacific waste route has now ground to a halt. In July 2017, China told the World Trade Organization it no longer wanted to be the end point for yang laji, or foreign garbage, with the country keen to grapple with its own mountains of waste. [more]

‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports

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

As global democracy retreats, ethnic cleansing is on the rise

Emergency shelter and supplies are being provided to displaced people in the Rakhine State in western Burma. Photo: DFID-UK Department for International Development / Flickr
Emergency shelter and supplies are being provided to displaced people in the Rakhine State in western Burma. Photo: DFID-UK Department for International Development / Flickr

By Michael J. Abramowitz and Arch Puddington
25 February 2019

(The Diplomat) – Ethnic cleansing, a staple of geopolitical crises in the 1990s, is making a comeback. According to Freedom in the World, the annual report on political rights and civil liberties published by Freedom House, the number of countries earning a score deduction for some form of forced demographic change increased from three in 2005 to 11 in 2018.

In the bloodiest cases, civilians from targeted groups have been killed or displaced in huge numbers. The military in Myanmar engaged in an orgy of rape, murder, and arson in a campaign to push the Muslim Rohingya minority into neighboring Bangladesh. During a period of extreme violence that began in mid-2017, tens of thousands of Rohingya were killed and over 700,000 fled.

In Syria’s multisided war, belligerents including the Assad regime and the Islamic State have engineered mass displacement, starvation, and purges of entire communities. And in South Sudan, both pro-government and rebel fighters have committed atrocities against civilians from rival ethnic groups, though government-aligned forces have been responsible for the worst abuses.

But the most violent outbreaks should not be allowed to overshadow or excuse more subtle efforts to forcibly alter the ethnic or religious makeup of a population. In Bahrain, the repressive Sunni monarchy has engaged in a long-term attempt to erode the Shiite majority and tip the country’s demographic balance in favor of the Sunni minority. Among other steps, the state has revoked the citizenship of hundreds of Shiite Bahrainis, and outlawed Shiite activists and opposition parties that object to such policies.

Ethnic cleansing became a global concern during the Balkan wars and the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda in the 1990s. Given the belated international response to those crises, some in the democratic world advanced a doctrine called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which obliges states to protect all populations from genocide and ethnic cleansing, and to intervene before the killing begins. At a 2005 UN summit, every country in the world signed a commitment to R2P.

Since that optimistic moment, democracy has been in retreat. In country after country, strongmen have eviscerated independent media, captured the judiciary, and stage-managed elections to perpetuate their rule. The failure of the United States and other democratic powers to respond effectively to these abuses has encouraged major autocracies to embrace more extreme measures, like forced demographic change, in pursuit of their domestic or geopolitical agendas.

The world’s democracies have appeared powerless to stop tragedies like those in Myanmar and Syria, whereas Russia and Iran have provided indispensable support to the regime in Damascus, and China has served as a key diplomatic backstop for Myanmar.

Indeed, both Moscow and Beijing are carrying out demographic engineering operations of their own.

Since its seizure of Crimea, the Kremlin has systematically enhanced the Russian military and civilian presence in the territory while deporting Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, or forcing their departure through acts of persecution.

China is engaged in campaigns to transform the populations of three regions with sizable ethnic minorities: Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang. While all three feature organized, long-term efforts to encourage settlement by members of the Han Chinese majority and suppress the cultures and languages of the indigenous minorities, the most ambitious and brutal project is under way in Xinjiang.

Conditions in the region deteriorated sharply during the past two years as more than 1 million ethnic Muslims were detained in a vast network of “re-education” centers to undergo political and religious indoctrination. The number and size of orphanages and boarding schools have also been expanded to absorb the growing number of minority children who have been sent away for immersive Chinese-language education or whose parents are being held in the camps. Cases of torture and deaths in custody were reported throughout 2018, as was evidence that Uyghurs were transferred in large numbers to detention facilities in other provinces.

Chinese officials use reassuring terms to describe their concentration camps and ethnic removal plans, referring to urban renewal, rural development, and job training.  But the goal remains what it has always been: to obliterate unique ethno-religious cultures that have endured for centuries, using a revamped version of techniques that made Maoism an infamous symbol of totalitarian cruelty.

One could make the argument that the atrocities in places like South Sudan and Myanmar are the work of rogue regimes. But the embrace of forced demographic change by world powers, especially China, which is making an aggressive bid for global leadership, has truly alarming implications. The international norm against ethnic cleansing is not just being swept aside. It is at risk of being replaced by a new standard that authorizes rulers to use any means necessary to create their preferred citizenry — a sinister reversal of democracy, in which free citizens are meant to choose their rulers.

As Global Democracy Retreats, Ethnic Cleansing Is on the Rise

U.S. wealth concentration returns to levels not seen since the Roaring Twenties – The 400 richest Americans own more than bottom 150 million – “For the rich, wealth begets power”

Share of wealth owned by the 400 richest Americans compared with the bottom 60 percent. The 400 richest Americans — the top 0.00025 percent of the population — have tripled their share of the nation’s wealth since the early 1980s. Data: Gabriel Zucman / World Inequality Database. Graphic: Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post

By Christopher Ingraham
8 February 2019
(The Washington Post) – The 400 richest Americans — the top 0.00025 percent of the population — have tripled their share of the nation’s wealth since the early 1980s, according to a new working paper on wealth inequality by University of California at Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman.Those 400 Americans own more of the country’s riches than the 150 million adults in the bottom 60 percent of the wealth distribution, who saw their share of the nation’s wealth fall from 5.7 percent in 1987 to 2.1 percent in 2014, according to the World Inequality Database maintained by Zucman and others.Overall, Zucman finds that “U.S. wealth concentration seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties.” That shift is eroding security from families in the lower and middle classes, who rely on their small stores of wealth to finance their retirement and to smooth over economic shocks like the loss of a job. And it’s consolidating power in the hands of the nation’s billionaires, who are increasingly using their riches to purchase political influence.Zucman, who advised Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on a recent proposal to tax high levels of wealth, warns that these numbers may understate the amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of the rich: It has become more difficult to account for the true wealth of the ultra-rich in recent decades, in part because many hide their assets in offshore tax shelters. […]American wealth is highly unevenly distributed, much more so than income. According to Zucman’s latest calculations, today the top 0.1 percent of the population has captured nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth, giving them a greater slice of the American pie than the bottom 80 percent of the population combined. That bottom 80 percent figure includes the 1 in 5 American households that has either zero or negative wealth, meaning that its debts are greater than or equal to its assets. According to NYU’s Wolff, the share of U.S. households with zero or negative wealth has risen by roughly one-third since 1983, when it was 15.5 percent.The top 10 percent of individuals, meanwhile, own more than 70 percent of the nation’s wealth, more than twice the amount owned by the bottom 90 percent. The top 10 percent have increased their share of wealth by about 10 percentage points since the early 1980s, with a concomitant decline in the share of wealth owned by everyone else. In some ways, Zucman finds, the distribution of wealth in the United States more closely resembles the situation in Russia and China than in other advanced democracies such as the United Kingdom and France. […]

Weath share of the top 10 percent of individuals in the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China. Data: Gabriel Zucman / World Inequality Database. Graphic: Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post

Rising wealth inequality may not necessarily be a zero-sum game: The rich gobbling up a larger share of the national wealth pie may not be a problem if there’s still more pie left for everyone else, relative to several years or decades ago. There’s good reason to suspect that this may be the case for income: While incomes at the top have risen dramatically over the past few decades, incomes in the middle have risen, too, albeit much more slowly.But the same dynamic is not occurring with household wealth. According to Wolff, the median household wealth in the United States in 2016 ($78,100) was slightly lower, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was three decades ago in 1983 ($80,000). Over the same time period, the average wealth of the top 1 percent of households more than doubled, from $10.6 million to $26.4 million.The wealthy are becoming wealthier, in other words, and there’s good reason to think it’s happening at the expense of everyone else. As Zucman notes, this has very different implications for different groups of people. “For everybody except the rich,” he writes, wealth’s “main function is to provide security.” Middle-class families tend to use their wealth to save for rainy-day expenses or to draw down on for retirement.But “for the rich, wealth begets power,” according to Zucman. Our electoral system is highly dependent on outside financing, creating numerous opportunities for the wealthy to convert their money into influence and tip the political scales in their favor. As a result, politicians have become accustomed to playing close attention to the interests of the wealthy and passing policies that reflect them, even in cases where public opinion is strongly trending in the opposite direction.“Wealth concentration may help explain the lack of redistributive responses to the rise of inequality observed since the 1980s,” Zucman writes. The interplay between money and power, in other words, may be self-reinforcing: The wealthy use their money to buy political power, and they use some of that power to protect their money. [more]

Wealth concentration returning to ‘levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ according to new researchShare of American wealth owned by the top 1 percent, the top 0.1 percent, and the bottom 80 percent of U.S. adults. Data: Gabriel Zucman / World Inequality Database. Graphic: Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post

ABSTRACT: This  article  reviews  the  recent  literature  on  the  dynamics  of  global  wealth  inequality.  I  first reconcile available estimates of wealth inequality in the United States. Both surveys and tax data show  that  wealth inequality  has  increased  dramatically  since  the  1980s,  with  a  top  1%  wealth share around 40% in 2016 vs. 25–30% in the 1980s. Second, I discuss the fast growing literature on  wealth  inequality  across the  world.  Evidence  points  towards  a  rise  in  global  wealth concentration:  for  China,  Europe,  and  the United  States  combined,  the  top  1%  wealth  share  has increased  from  28%  in  1980  to  33%  today,  while the  bottom  75%  share  hovered  around  10%. Recent  studies,  however,  may  under-estimate  the  level and  rise  of  inequality,  as  financial globalization  makes  it  increasingly  hard  to  measure  wealth  at  the top.  I  discuss  how  new  data sources  (leaks  from  financial  institutions,  tax  amnesties,  and  macroeconomic statistics  of  tax havens) can be leveraged to better capture the wealth of the rich.

Global Wealth Inequality [pdf]

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