The threat spectrum

Planet A  

The arctic air blast that hit the US, freezing Texas power plants and leaving millions without power or clean water last week, has highlighted the country’s key vulnerabilities when it comes to extreme weather events. Texas was doubly vulnerable, as its energy sources aren’t engineered for extreme cold, and the state runs off its own energy grid.

That this cold snap is connected to climate change seems in little doubt. CBS News meteorologist Jeff Berardelli wrote that climate researcher Jennifer Francis’s ‘wavy jet stream’ theory could be seen in action, as a polar vortex disrupted by naturally occurring sudden stratospheric warming was pushed much further south than usual by a climate-change-related disruption. In last week’s storm, this resulted in snow covering 75% of the US.

And Texans didn’t feel the effects equally. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas exempted affluent urban zones from power outages while leaving lower income areas. This illustrates how climate change impacts are unevenly distributed along income lines, with the poorest at the highest risk and the earliest affected.

Democracy watch

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s recent Democracy index 2020 revealed a global decline in democratic standards last year. The ‘unprecedented rollback of democratic freedoms’ during the Covid-19 pandemic described in the report has led commentators to ask whether democracy is on a global decline, and whether democracy itself is being ‘killed’ by the pandemic.

Significantly, the report showed how, in a pandemic context, most people willingly traded fundamental freedoms during enforced lockdowns to prevent loss of life. However, repression and censorship of lockdown sceptics, including state-sanctioned violence against uncooperative citizens, reduced democratic standards in multiple countries.

The pandemic also facilitated increased overt state surveillance, posing a long-term threat to democratic freedoms. ASPI’s Kelsey Munro and Danielle Cave argue that this phenomenon shifts power away from citizens towards state control and has ‘generated sudden momentum to cross privacy lines until recently thought unacceptable in democracies’. It will be worth watching to see whether increased public surveillance and lower levels of privacy are wound back as vaccines roll out around the world.

Information operations

In a recent Comparitech study, China was ranked the worst of 96 countries in its collection and use of biometric data. It’s not surprising that China has taken the top spot, given its widespread use of facial recognition technology and its extensive national biometric database which now includes a DNA collection program.

Comparitech noted the trend of countries collecting and using biometric data under the guise of measures to control Covid-19. China’s government is one of the most active in this space, using facial recognition drones to monitor homes during lockdowns, installing tablets on public buses that take pictures and monitor people’s temperature, and developing facial recognition software that can identify people wearing a face mask.

The proliferation of advanced technologies to collect and use biometric data has been a hallmark of China’s domestic surveillance operations, many of which have been tested on Xinjiang’s Uyghur population before being deployed nationwide and exported to governments looking to replicate China’s model of digitally enabled authoritarianism.

Follow the money 

On 23 February, the EU imposed sanctions on Russia over its treatment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny. EU–Russia relations dropped to a new low with foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell’s announcement that the union’s 27 members had agreed to targeted sanctions on yet-to-be-named Russian officials involved in breaching human rights. Before initiating sanctions, Borrell had an unsuccessful visit to Moscow, where he attempted to negotiate with the Russian government over its detention of Navalny and crackdown on his supporters.

Navalny has been an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, publicly accusing President Vladimir Putin of corruption. Before he was jailed in Moscow, Navalny was receiving medical treatment in Germany after an attempt on his life using the chemical agent Novichok. This is  not the first time that the Russian government has been credibly accused of attempting to assassinate an opposition leader. Navalny’s case has once again highlighted Russia’s human rights record and Putin’s determination to eradicate all opposition to his regime.

Terror byte 

The French government has taken steps to dissolve far-right group Generation Identity. GI is a pan-European and white nationalist group with offshoots in Austria, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. An Al Jazeera investigation exposed GI’s race- and religion-fuelled violence, as well as its infiltration of far-right French political party National Rally (formerly the National Front), led by Marine Le Pen.

Dozens of protesters rallied in Paris in response to the ban of GI, some wearing vests embellished with ‘Génération Identitaire’. The French government has accused the group of contributing to tensions in the community through its openly hateful rhetoric.

GI received messages of support from key figures in National Rally, which remains a competitive political force in France. The party’s been boosted by Moscow through reported interference campaigns targeting President Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 election and loans from Russian banks to National Front worth €11 million in 2014. Events in France reflect a growing trend of far-right extremism insinuating itself into political parties across the West.