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January 2021, Volume 27, Number 1

Climate Change

The Paris climate agreement of 2015 obliges governments to cooperate to prevent average temperatures from rising more than 1.5C or 2.7F over pre-industrial levels. Most government policies aim to reduce emissions from fossil-fuels, but researchers in November 2020 argued that encouraging plant-rich diets, increasing crop yields, and reducing food waste could limit temperature-raising emissions from food production, which contributes 16 billion of the 53 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Emissions from food production are rising as the population grows and people include more meat in their diets. Increasing food and meat production means that land is cleared for crops and animals, more fertilizers are used, and more rice is grown in flooded paddies.

Brazil’s national space research agency Inpe reported in December 2020 that 4,300 square miles of Amazon rain forest was burned in 2020, the most in a decade. Farmers felt emboldened to clear rain forest for cattle and soybeans after the budget of the environmental enforcement agency Ibama was reduced despite the use of the military under Operation Green Brazil to reduce deforestation. Critics say that the military displaced Ibama in the fight against deforestation, and that disputes between environmental agencies and military leaders are allowing deforestation to accelerate.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record, with 13 hurricanes and 30 named storms, surpassing the previous record of 28 named storms in 2005. The combination of Covid-damaged economies, persisting violence, damage from storms, and a new Biden administration was expected to increase Central American migration to the US.

Munich Re estimated that hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters caused almost $100 billion in damage around the US in 2020. Hurricane Laura led the list, with $13 billion in damage in southwestern Louisiana in August 2020, accounting for a third of the $43 billion in damages due to hurricanes. Convective storms, including thunderstorms, tornadoes, hailstorms and derechos, caused $40 billion in damages, followed by wildfires that caused $16 billion in losses.

Australia, the driest inhabited continent, had its worst wildfires in 2019-20. The 2020-21 fire season began with half of Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, burned after a campfire burned out of control in mid-October 2020. La Niña brought cooler water closer to the sea surface in the central and eastern tropical Pacific, which delivered above-average rainfall to Australia in 2020, filling reservoirs in New South Wales and Queensland.

The rainfall also supported fields of grass across the plains west of the Great Dividing Range, the mountain chain along Australia’s eastern seaboard, creating the fuel for wildfires. Rising temperatures dry out grasses and brush, so that a lightning strike can lead to massive fires.

Russia is the world’s largest country; its 6.6 million square miles dwarf the 3.8 million square miles of Canada. However, most of Russia’s land area is not arable, especially the four million square miles of Siberia. Climate change is making more of Russia farmable, increasing the acreage of corn, soybeans and wheat and potentially turning Russia into an agricultural superpower.

Russia is already a major grain exporter. In 2010, after drought and wildfire reduced Russia’s wheat crop, grain exports were banned, contributing to a 40 percent increase in the price of wheat and bread riots in Egypt. In 2018, Russia exported farm commodities worth $30 billion, including 44 million tons of wheat, a quarter of world wheat exports. The US is the leading farm exporter, accounting for 40 percent of corn exports, a third of soybean exports, and an eighth of wheat exports.

The optimum average temperature for human productivity is believed to be between 52 and 59F, and for agricultural productivity 55F. A warming climate could accelerate south to north migration.

GE unveiled the world’s largest wind turbine in 2020, the Haliade-X with a diameter of 722 feet is a third more powerful than the largest current models, capable of generating 13 megawatts of enough for 12,000 homes. Haliade-X turbines are designed for use at sea, where the wind is stronger and more reliable. Some 275 Haliade-X turbines are expected to be deployed in the world’s largest wind farm at Dogger Bank off Britain.

More Americans are installing solar panels on their roofs, but the leading installers, Sunrun and Sunnova, are losing money. Nonetheless, the stock prices of Sunrun and Sunnova more than tripled in 2020, as investors expect Biden-administration policies to promote more solar panel installations.

Over the 25-year life of solar panels, installers make money by collecting lease payments or selling the electricity that is generated. Many national solar installation firms tried to grow fast and failed, raising the question of whether installing solar will turn out to be a national business like auto manufacturing or a local business like home repairs. Home solar cost two or three times more in the US than in Australia due to US costs of permits and marketing.

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