Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 29 February 2024


The World May Be Entering a Much Bloodier Era

Credit... Ibrahim Rayintakath
David Wallace-Wells

By David Wallace-Wells

Opinion Writer

You’re reading the David Wallace-Wells newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  The best-selling science writer and essayist explores climate change, technology, the future of the planet and how we live on it.

War is on the rise everywhere. When the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London published its authoritative Armed Conflict Survey in early December, it counted 183 conflicts globally in 2023 — higher than had been recorded in 30 years. The most remarkable episode of this harrowing new era of global violence is an astounding spate of military takeovers in what has come to be known as the coup belt, stretching uninterrupted across Africa’s Sahel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea: six countries enduring 11 coup attempts, eight of them successful, since just 2020.

When Steven Pinker’s sweeping history of violence, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” was published a little more than a decade ago, it quickly became a touchstone for a cohort of geopolitical optimists making broad claims of human progress. The book’s core empirical claim was about death: that global rates of murder and war had been declining both notably and steadily for a very long time and that the world was now far more peaceable than it had ever been.

On the time scale of human civilization, this might still be true, particularly when it comes to interpersonal violence. But on the time scale of human memory, it isn’t true any longer, particularly when it comes to warfare. Counting by the number of conflicts, the world as a whole is a more violent place than it has been for at least 30 years. By some measures, it’s more conflict ridden than at any point since the end of World War II. Nonstate violence — conflict between nongovernmental armed groups, such as gangs — has more than tripled, according to Sweden’s Uppsala Conflict Data Program, since a low point in 2007. Violence by state forces against civilians has more than doubled since 2009, and assassination attempts are on the rise.

These conflicts are also producing much more bloodshed. In 2011, when Pinker published “Better Angels,” there were nearly 40,000 deaths from warfare worldwide, Uppsala estimates. In 2022, they say, the number was above 238,000 — a nearly sixfold increase. It had nearly doubled in a single year.

For Americans, this shift has been marked by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. But there are more than two wars going on in the world, many of them with much more tenuous connections to U.S. interests and far less American attention as a result.

A changing climate, a changing world

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The role of our leaders: Writing at the end of 2020, Al Gore, the 45th vice president of the United States, found reasons for optimism in the Biden presidency, a feeling perhaps borne out by the passing of major climate legislation. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been criticisms. For example, Charles Harvey and Kurt House argue that subsidies for climate capture technology will ultimately be a waste.

The worst climate risks, mapped: In this feature, select a country, and we'll break down the climate hazards it faces. In the case of America, our maps, developed with experts, show where extreme heat is causing the most deaths.

What people can do: Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey describe the types of local activism that might be needed, while Saul Griffith points to how Australia shows the way on rooftop solar. Meanwhile, small changes at the office might be one good way to cut significant emissions, writes Carlos Gamarra.

Today, one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises is unfolding in Sudan, where a civil war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced nearly eight million and, according to U.N. officials, has produced “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history.” Nearly seven million people have been displaced by fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, amid accusations of mass killings, and the United Nations plans to withdraw its peacekeepers this year. The ongoing conflict in Yemen has left more than a quarter-million dead and more than 20 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Some studies estimate that Ethiopia’s recent war against its separatists may have killed as many as 600,000 people over two years, and in the Central African Republic, a 2023 report published in the journal Conflict and Health suggested, nearly 6 percent of the total population might have died in 2022.

But in many ways the most remarkable unrest has been in the Sahel — in the coup belt stretching across the continent just south of the Sahara, from Guinea in the west to the Nile basin and the Horn of Africa in the east. As recently as five years ago, some political scientists believed that coups were on their way out of world history. But now you can walk 4,600 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and pass through only countries toppled by coups d’état in those same five years.

All told, this is a remarkable geopolitical phenomenon and may be the most conspicuous episode of civic instability and turmoil anywhere in the world since the fall of the Iron Curtain — more governments falling to military takeover in one region than were overturned during the Arab Spring of the early 2010s, which brought down governments in four countries, or the color revolutions of the previous decade, which brought down four. “These days, a question crops up when African officials gather to discuss governance,” Comfort Ero and Murithi Mutiga wrote in December in Foreign Affairs. “Which president will be ousted by his military next?”

Each of these coups — in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Sudan — has its own complicated and idiosyncratic back story. And it’s possible that the clustering of these coups may be a coincidence. This is a famously inhospitable region known for underdevelopment, humanitarian catastrophe and political instability. But Ero and Mutiga call it a “crisis of African democracy,” and Naunihal Singh, a scholar of coups, emphasizes that it is an especially visible example of a global backsliding of democratic norms.

There may be a contagion effect, too, in which one coup provides a permission structure for the next, though as Singh notes, historically juntas have operated less according to external logic than internal motivation. And while many American commentators blame the end of a Pax Americana and a resulting vacuum of geopolitical leadership, those closer to the Sahel tend to see the American war on terrorism, particularly the U.S.-led invasion of Libya in 2011, as a major contributor to regional instability. On the ground, animosity toward the French is also pervasive, and there is influence jockeying and obvious strategic meddling by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, along with widespread suspicion about Russia (with its state-funded military contractor the Wagner group recently rebranding on the continent).

The past few years have been especially difficult ones across the Sahel, with the pandemic and Covid recessions and a surge in hunger partly driven by the war in Ukraine. Public revenues have fallen, countries are struggling through sovereign debt crises, and inflation has been soaring. Islamist militants, now largely forgotten or ignored by civilians in the United States, continue to be a source of Sahelian instability, with the failure to contain them in certain countries widely seen as an indictment of existing elites. There are generational dynamics at play, too, with booming youth populations increasingly frustrated with older leadership regimes and demographic ones as well, with rapid and disorderly urbanization from an increasingly harsh and conflict-ridden agricultural countryside.

I think it’s also worth flagging another possible contributor: climate change.

Climate researchers have long projected that the Sahel would be one of the regions most threatened by the impacts of warming. The Institute for Economics and Peace has identified the Sahel as one of its ecological threat hot spots, and according to Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Initiative’s index, all six countries in the region rank among the least prepared places in the world. Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations in 2022, Beza Tesfaye noted that “Sahelian countries are simultaneously among the most affected by climate change and the least prepared to adapt,” an observation underlined last year by the I.M.F. as well. And in November 2022 the United Nations warned that climate impacts could bring about political instability and further conflict in 10 nations of the greater Sahel. In the last five years, those 10 nations have experienced a total of eight attempted or successful coups.

Across the region, environmental struggle has profoundly shaped a half-century of history, but the recent disruptions are nevertheless significant. In Niger, there have been nine droughts and five major flooding events in the last 20 years, with food crises every four years and many parts of the country without a good harvest in a decade. In 2022, an intense rainy season produced devastating flooding in Mali and Chad, events the World Weather Attribution network estimated were made 80 times more likely by climate change. Southeast of the coup belt, a three-year drought in the Horn of Africa has left more than four million people in need of humanitarian assistance; according to the W.W.A.’s “conservative estimate,” the drought was made 100 times more likely by climate change.

These disasters aren’t the source of all of the recent political turmoil. As in many unstable parts of the world, climate change may not be directly causing political disruptions, but it is pressuring already fragile systems. “The patient, as it were, is suffering from lots of different kinds of ailments,” the political scientist Kenneth Schultz told me. “But this is another one.” Last August, Roland Ngam, of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, wrote in South Africa’s Daily Maverick that “behind all the coups” are “weak institutions and especially climate change which has caused a massive ecosystem collapse over the last century.” And in November Abdoulie Ceesay, the deputy majority leader of the Gambian National Assembly, wrote in The New Internationalist: “The simple fact is that the rise of militarism has gone hand in hand with the rise in poverty, food insecurity, economic crises and extreme weather. His conclusion: “To belittle the role of climate change in these crises seems to me obscene.”

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