Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


January 2020, Volume 26, Number 1

Climate Change

Two weeks of meetings in Madrid in December 2019 failed to produce agreement on how to implement the 2015 Paris accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by pricing carbon emissions. The EU committed to having zero net emissions by 2050, but China, the leading greenhouse gas emitter, as well as Brazil, India and the US, did not.

The 2015 Paris accord seeks to limit global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, with an ambition to limit the global increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The three major greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. If emissions do not begin falling, the world's average temperature is expected to rise more than the two degrees Celsius.

The world's 20 richest countries are responsible for more than three-fourths of greenhouse gas emissions. Poorer countries want richer countries to provide them with funds to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Amazon. The number of fires doubled between 2018 and 2019 during the cooler and drier summer months of June through September, as cattlemen and farmers cleared an estimated 4,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest for grazing and soybeans. Under a 2009 agreement between Greenpeace and the three largest Brazilian meatpackers, JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, cattle from newly deforested areas are not purchased by these meatpackers. Greenpeace ended the agreement in 2017, saying that the meatpackers were not honoring their commitment.

Cattle grazing is responsible for up to 80 percent of Amazon destruction. A 2,700-acre ranch carved from the jungle supports 400 cattle, a stocking ratio of about one cow for seven acres. Almost 175,000-square miles of jungle have been converted to pasture for some of Brazil's 200 million head of cattle over the past four decades. A third of the jungle cattle are in Para state, the second-largest Brazilian state just east of Amazonas.

Cattle are bought and sold as they grow, making it hard to know exactly where they have been grazing. So-called cattle laundering allows meatpackers to say they buy only from certified ranches, even if the cattle were previously on illegally cleared land.

Australia had record-high temperatures and major bushfires in December 2019 and January 2020. Temperatures topped 42C or 107F, and smoke hung over metro Sydney, which has 20 percent of Australian residents, during the worst fire season on record. Nine of Australia's 10 warmest years have occurred since 2005, prompting debate on whether the government should do more to reduce carbon emissions and revise a firefighting system that relies mostly on unpaid volunteers.

Australia has not had a recession for three decades. About 40 percent of Australia's exports go to China, led by iron ore, coal, and liquefied natural gas and worth A$7,300 per Australian resident. Australia's economy is dependent on China, but its security is dependent on the US at a time when Australia is exposed to the effects of climate change.

Water. Much of the world is running short of fresh water, leaving people with less than the 350 gallons per person per day that the UN recommends. Over 96 percent of the world's water is salt water in the oceans that could be desalinated, but at a high cost. Desalination is most common in coastal areas with cheap energy such as Saudi Arabia, where half of the fresh water for 33 million people is desalinated.

Desalination involves filtering seawater through sand and then forcing it under pressure through steel tubes that are lined with membranes that remove salt and impurities, the reverse osmosis process. Seawater can also be boiled; the steam is fresh water. Forcing the water through the membranes takes cheap energy, explaining why Saudi Arabia produces about half of the world's desalinated water.

South Asia's monsoon rains typically peak in September. In recent years, there have been more very heavy rains punctuated by long dry spells. Mismanagement of water in India, including the cutting of forests that once absorbed heavy rainfall and clogging drains and lakes with garbage, means that heavy rains often run off rather than being absorbed in the soil or retained in lakes.

Areas with declining rainfall nonetheless have ever more sugar cane, which takes water that could be used to produce food crops. The Indian government provided almost $900 million in export subsidies for sugar production in 2019, helping to make India the world's largest sugar producer.

The Nile is the world's longest river, rising in East Africa and flowing northward for 4,100 miles into the Mediterranean. The White Nile begins southwest of Lake Victoria, and joins the Blue Nile that carries more water in Khartoum.

Some 250 million people live in the Nile River basin, and there is increasing controversy over Nile water used in Egypt and Sudan to grow food and forage for Gulf oil exporters. There are almost 400,000 acres of irrigated farm land in Egypt that grows crops for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, taking water that in the past went to small Egyptian farmers in the Nile River delta.

Egypt uses 85 percent of its fresh water for agriculture, almost all from the Nile, higher than the average 70 percent of fresh water used for agriculture around the world. Egypt's per capita water usage has fallen to 24,000 cubic feet per year, a fourth of the 100,000 cubic feet per year in the US.

Ocean temperatures around Iceland increased between 1.8F and 3.6F over the past two decades, driving capelin to colder waters and leading to the closure of the capelin fishery. Cod feed on capelin, so the exit of capelin reduced the $1 billion-a-year cod catch and increased the mackerel catch. Over the past half century, the oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions, driving fish that prefer cold water toward the poles.

Worldwide oil production is 80 million barrels a day, and is expected to rise as new supplies are developed in Brazil, Canada, Norway and Guyana. Despite predictions of "peak oil," or diminishing production as supplies run out, more oil is being produced, which keeps energy prices low and encourages consumers to buy larger cars. Oil prices have fallen by half since averaging over $100 a barrel before the 2008-09 recession.