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.”

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Finland Again is the Happiest Country in the World

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

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

Brazil’s government may push the Amazon to destruction

Disturbed fraction of vegetation across South America simulated by the HadGEM2-ES Earth System Model, at 1860, 2005, and four future scenarios at 2100: RCP2.6 (high mitigation), RCP4.5, RCP6.0, and RCP8.5 (high emissions). Graphic: Marengo, et al., 2018 / Frontiers in Earth Science

By Rodrigo de Oliveira Andrade
24 January 2019

SÃO PAULO (SciDev.Net) – Brazil’s new government, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, has quickly taken steps to loosen environmental law enforcement. Now a review paper shows that the deforestation that could result may have terrible consequences for the Amazon rainforest, including dramatic biodiversity loss, intensified dry seasons, droughts, all ultimately leading to a “state of collapse”.

Scientists worldwide say Bolsonaro’s stance on science and the environment is worrying. He promotes development at all costs and has threatened to follow US President Donald Trump and pull Brazil out of the 2015 Paris agreement.During the election campaign, he made no secret of his desire to open indigenous lands to mining, farming and dam building, even though about 13 per cent of Brazilian territory is recognised as indigenous lands and protected by law.

Now a review by the climatologist José Marengo, from the National Centre for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters, and his colleagues draws together a broad set of data on the Amazon climate to analyse, among other things, the probable effects of large-scale deforestation.

Marengo says that studies recently begun to suggest that Amazon deforestation could reach a tipping point beyond which the ecosystem could collapse. “The combined effects of drought and deforestation, along with fire, might amplify impacts and potentially cause the collapse of the rainforest ecosystem,” he says.

About 19 per cent of the Brazilian rainforest that existed in 1970 has already been cut down. One study from 2018 suggested the tipping point could be as low as 25 per cent deforestation. “If this tipping point is crossed, part of forest might be converted into a savannah,” says Marengo. “It would potentially have large-scale impacts on climate, biodiversity, and the people living there.”

Extreme climatic events, such as droughts, floods, changes in the rainy and dry seasons, and forest fires could also increase, he says. [more]

Brazil’s government may push the Amazon to destruction


ABSTRACT: This paper shows recent progress in our understanding of climate variability and trends in the Amazon region, and how these interact with land use change. The review includes an overview of up-to-date information on climate and hydrological variability, and on warming trends in Amazonia, which reached 0.6–0.7°C over the last 40 years, with 2016 as the warmest year since at least 1950 (0.9°C + 0.3°C). We focus on local and remote drivers of climate variability and change. We review the impacts of these drivers on the length of dry season, the role of the forest in climate and carbon cycles, the resilience of the forest, the risk of fires and biomass burning, and the potential “die back” of the Amazon forests if surpassing a “tipping point”. The role of the Amazon in moisture recycling and transport is also investigated, and a review of model development for climate change projections in the region is included. In sum, future sustainability of the Amazonian forests and its many services requires management strategies that consider the likelihood of multi-year droughts superimposed on a continued warming trend. Science has assembled enough knowledge to underline the global and regional importance of an intact Amazon region that can support policymaking and to keep this sensitive ecosystem functioning. This major challenge requires substantial resources and strategic cross-national planning, and a unique blend of expertise and capacities established in Amazon countries and from international collaboration. This also highlights the role of deforestation control in support of policy for mitigation options as established in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Changes in Climate and Land Use Over the Amazon Region: Current and Future Variability and Trends

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wants state auditors “kidnapped, tortured”

President Duterte addresses the Barangay Summit on Peace and Order at the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City, 8 January 2019. Duterte advocated the kidnapping and torture of government auditors for hampering the work of his administration. Photo: Joven Cagande / The Philippine Star
President Duterte addresses the Barangay Summit on Peace and Order at the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City, 8 January 2019. Duterte advocated the kidnapping and torture of government auditors for hampering the work of his administration. Photo: Joven Cagande / The Philippine Star

8 January 2019 (Al Jazeera News) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has advocated the kidnapping and torture of government auditors for hampering the work of his administration.

In a speech before local officials gathered in the capital, Manila, Duterte cursed at the independent constitutional body, which is responsible for examining the accounts and spending by government agencies.

“Let’s just kidnap people from COA [Commission on Audit]. Let’s bring them here, then we will torture those sons of whores,” Duterte said in an expletive-laden speech in English and Filipino.

“They always make things difficult. That’s what I don’t like, making things difficult,” he said.

For decades, government auditors in the Philippines have earned the reputation of being difficult, for closely scrutinising expenditures of all government agencies.

While they do not have powers to prosecute, evidence gathered by state auditors has been used to send public officials to jail.

Previously, Duterte had railed against the state auditors saying “they should be pushed down the stairs”, and ridiculed government regulations as “shit”. [more]

Philippines: Duterte wants state auditors ‘kidnapped, tortured’

Journalists reporting on the environment faced increased dangers in 2018

Map showing the number of journalists killed worldwide in 2018. Data: Committee to Protect Journalists. Graphic: CPJ
Map showing the number of journalists killed worldwide in 2018. Data: Committee to Protect Journalists. Graphic: CPJ

By Kaamil Ahmed
4 January 2019

(Mongabay) – A pair of “French spies” had infiltrated India by sea to commit a “treasonous conspiracy,” an Indian minister claimed in late November. In reality, they were two visiting journalists, and their mission was an investigation into allegations of illegal sand mining in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. They had merely tried and failed to visit the site of a major mining company through legal means.

Their presence set off alarm bells among some connected to the industry, and the fallout has been significant. It’s included a police investigation, a politically fueled propaganda campaign, and the arrests of two local translators who had been working for them.

This heavy-handed response is familiar to Indian journalist Sandhya Ravishankar, who has reported on sand mining since 2013 and found that her probing into allegations of major business interests damaging the local environment has resulted in stalking and various types of harassment – some of it reportedly directed by the head of one of the mining companies.

“I got rape threats, my bike was vandalized, the miner has openly admitted that there are five detective agencies trailing me wherever I go, CCTV visuals of me having coffee with a source at a cafe have been made public,” Ravishankar said, adding that she also discovered government documents showing “officials have colluded to slander me.”

Ravishankar’s case is just one example of the growing dangers for journalists reporting environmental stories. Even as environmental journalism becomes increasingly important in the face of destructive business and political interests and practices, the inherent safety risks remain. There are also the more routine challenges of accessing crucial information and convincing editors and readers of their importance.

“Journalists I’ve interviewed have been arrested, sued, fired, threatened, harassed, interrogated by police, interrogated by the military, physically assaulted and a number of them have been killed while covering logging, mining, development,” said journalism professor Eric Freedman in an interview. Freedman is the Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. […]

The front page of 'Daily Eleven' in Yangon, Myanmar the day after the murder of one of its reporters, Soe Moe Tun, on 13 December 2016. Photo: Ann Wang / Mongabay
The front page of ‘Daily Eleven’ in Yangon, Myanmar the day after the murder of one of its reporters, Soe Moe Tun, on 13 December 2016. Photo: Ann Wang / Mongabay

While Brazil has previously been praised for taking steps toward combatting environmental damage by reducing both deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, it is also a country where the debate around the environment is typically very loaded.

Fears that the discussion will become even more polarizing have grown since the election this year of the right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro as president. One of his first moves ahead of taking power in the new year was to appoint as his foreign minister an official who has described climate change as a “Marxist plot” and climate science as “dogma.”

Even before Bolsonaro’s election, Brazil was already one of the most dangerous places for environmental activists, according to a 2017 report by free-speech watchdog Article 19. It recorded 57 environmental activists killed in 2017, most of whom worked to defend the Amazon rainforest. […]

Gustavo Faleiros, the editor of InfoAmazonia, which covers issues in the rainforest across the nine countries it spans, said deeper polarization in Brazilian politics would affect journalists trying to report on the environment. They might face accusations of being activists or part of the political opposition, he said.

“I think tough questions will be seen as confrontation and that’s not good,” he said in an interview. “Even worse now there’s this discourse treating those who are asking tough questions as saying those people are leftists who are supporting left ideologies. So it’s a very strange time where just by being critical you become a Communist.”

Faleiros said a lot of the trends environmental journalists in Brazil had to contend with echoed globally, including an “aversion to facts” when reported by the media.“But here it’s very visible that no matter what kind [of] scientific facts you bring to your story, there will always be an argument to show that this is not enough to be concerned [about] or that you are just showing one side of the story,” Faleiros said. [more]

Journalists reporting on the environment faced increased dangers in 2018

Brazil’s new far-right government issues decrees across sectors – Indigenous land claims handed over to Agriculture Ministry

Brazil's new President Jair Bolsonaro attends the handover ceremony for Augusto Heleno, Minister of Institutional Security, Santos Cruz, Government Secretary, Gustavo Bebianno, President's Secretary General and Onyx Lorenzoni, Chief of Staff, at the planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil 2 January 2018. Photo: Adriano Machado / REUTERS
Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro attends the handover ceremony for Augusto Heleno, Minister of Institutional Security, Santos Cruz, Government Secretary, Gustavo Bebianno, President’s Secretary General and Onyx Lorenzoni, Chief of Staff, at the planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil 2 January 2018. Photo: Adriano Machado / REUTERS

By Anthony Boadle
2 January 2019

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro set to work quickly on Wednesday, with his administration issuing decrees affecting the economy, agriculture and society, while forging closer political ties with the United States.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain and seven-term congressman, won elections in October and was sworn in on Tuesday as Brazil’s first far-right president since a military dictatorship gave way to civilian rule in 1985.

Fulfilling a campaign promise to his staunch supporters in the farm sector, Bolsonaro decreed that indigenous land claims, a source of bloody clashes on Brazil’s agricultural frontier, would be decided by the Agriculture Ministry.

The gift to the powerful agribusiness sector enraged environmentalists already worried by Bolsonaro’s plans to loosen protections of the Amazon rainforest and remove Brazil’s support for the Paris Agreement on climate change. […]

Bolsonaro’s vow to follow Trump’s example and pull Brazil out of the Paris climate change agreement has worried environmentalists. So have his plans to build hydroelectric dams in the Amazon and open up to mining the reservations of indigenous peoples who are seen as the last custodians of the world’s biggest forest. [more]

Brazil’s new far-right government issues decrees across sectors

Worldwide round-up of deadly attacks and abuses against journalists in 2018 – “Violence against journalists has reached unprecedented levels this year, and the situation is now critical”

Number of reporters killed, detained, and held hostage in 2018. Graphic: Reporters Without Borders
Number of reporters killed, detained, and held hostage in 2018. Graphic: Reporters Without Borders

14 December 2018 (RSF) – A total of 80 journalists were killed this year, 348 are currently in prison, and 60 are being held hostage, according to the annual worldwide round-up of deadly violence and abusive treatment of journalists released today by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which shows an unprecedented level of hostility towards media personnel.

The RSF round-up figures have risen in all categories. Murders, imprisonment, hostage-taking and enforced disappearances have all increased. Journalists have never before been subjected to as much violence and abusive treatment as in 2018.

This year has been marked by the number of journalists in all categories* who were killed in connection with their work, a figure which increased by eight percent to 80, and by the 15 percent rise in the number of professional journalists killed, from 55 in 2017 to 63 this year. This number had been declining over the previous three years.

The widely reported murders of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the young Slovak data journalist Ján Kuciak highlighted the lengths to which press freedom’s enemies are prepared to go. More than half of the journalists killed in 2018 were deliberately targeted.

“Violence against journalists has reached unprecedented levels this year, and the situation is now critical,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said. “The hatred of journalists that is voiced, and sometimes very openly proclaimed, by unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders, and businessmen has tragic consequences on the ground, and has been reflected in this disturbing increase in violations against journalists.
“Amplified by social networks, which bear heavy responsibility in this regard, these expressions of hatred legitimize violence, thereby undermining journalism, and democracy itself, a bit more every day.”

With the release of its latest World Press Freedom Index in April 2018, RSF had already expressed alarm over an increased level of hostility towards the media encouraged by politicians, as well as efforts by authoritarian regimes to export their alternative vision of journalism.

More journalists detained or held hostage

Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest country for journalists in 2018, with 15 killed. It was followed by Syria, with 11 killed, and Mexico, the deadliest country outside a conflict zone, with nine journalists murdered in 2018. The fatal shooting of five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in June brought the United States into the ranks of the deadliest countries.The number of journalists detained worldwide at the end of the year – 348 – is up from 326 at this time last year. As in 2017, more than half of the world’s imprisoned journalists are being held in just five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. China remains the world’s biggest jailer of journalists with 60 currently held, of whom three quarters are non-professional journalists.

The number of journalists currently held hostage – 60 – is 11 percent higher than this time last year, when it was 54. All but one are being held in three Middle Eastern countries: Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. They include six foreign journalists. Despite the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq and retreat in Syria, little information has emerged about the fate of these hostages, except for Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who was freed after three years of captivity in Syria. A Ukrainian journalist is still being held in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” by the authorities who accuse him of spying. RSF also registered three new cases of journalists disappearing in 2018, two in Latin America and one in Russia.

Compiled by RSF every year since 1995, the annual round-up of abusive treatment and deadly violence against journalists is based on precise data. We gather detailed information that allows us to confirm with certainty or a great deal of confidence that the death, detention, abduction or disappearance of each journalist listed was a direct result of their journalistic work.

RSF’s 2018 round-up of deadly attacks and abuses against journalists – figures up in all categories