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April 2022, Volume 28, Number 2

Climate Change

A warming earth is expected to unleash more extreme weather events including drought and floods, wildfires and heatwaves and severe storms. Seven of the 10 hottest years on record have been in the past decade.

Average global temperatures increased by an average of 1.1C or 2F since the 1850s. World leaders have pledged to limit global warming to 1.5C to avoid larger climate change impacts, although most researchers expect average world temperatures to be 2C to 3C higher in 2050. Higher temperatures could reduce food production, threaten coral reefs and reduce fish stocks and increase coastal flooding.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in February 2022 that estimated that storms, floods and other extreme weather events displaced over 13 million people across Asia and Africa in 2019; these weather events allowed mosquitoes that carry diseases such as malaria and dengue to spread into new areas. Incremental defenses such as flood barriers may be insufficient to deal with extreme weather if natural systems go beyond a tipping point, which could lead to mass migration induced by climate change.

The IGCC acknowledged that agricultural innovations such as the green revolution and improved public health systems have reduced deaths from climate disasters over the past half century. However, the IGCC warned that further temperature increases could overwhelm current defenses against climate events.

The major policies to slow global warming are to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are trapped in the atmosphere and act as a blanket to trap the sun’s heat that reaches the earth’s surface. Alternatively, carbon could be captured from the atmosphere and stored underground. Economists favor a carbon tax that charges polluters for the right to emit carbon, giving them incentives to reduce their emissions as the carbon tax rises.

During the winter of 2022, oil and gas prices rose due to increasing demand, supply interruptions and sanctions after Russia invaded Ukraine. The US is the largest producer of oil and gas, and Russia is the second-largest exporter after Saudi Arabia. Russia produces about 10 million barrels of oil a day and exports 5.5 million barrels, including two million barrels a day to China.

Biden announced in March 2022 that the US would release a million barrels of oil a day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to hold down gas prices. Biden’s goal of reducing US greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 is not likely to be achieved.

After President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal stalled in January 2022, Democrats separated the BBB’s expanded social safety net and climate components, hoping to enact legislation to slow global warming and fulfill commitments that US made in Paris in 2015 by subsidizing the production of more wind and solar power, the purchase of electric cars and research into carbon capture technologies.

One question underlying many federal government regulations is the price that should be assigned to each metric ton of carbon emitted, the social cost of carbon. A higher social cost justifies more federal interventions to reduce carbon emissions. A federal judge in February 2022 ruled that the $51 per ton of carbon emitted used by the Biden administration could only be determined by Congress, and that EPA regulations based on the $51 cost were invalid.

The US Supreme Court will decide how far the Clean Air Act can be stretched via EPA regulation to regulate power plant emissions. The failure of Congress to enact specific limits on emissions means that the EPA has tried to fill the breach by regulating emissions from power plants as well as other sources of emissions.

John Muir (1838-1914) was the father of the US national park system and co-founder of the 2.4-million-member Sierra Club. Current Sierra Club leadership, which considers climate change the major threat to humanity, wants to link the environmental movement with the environmental justice movement, arguing that environmental rights are also human, justice, gender and reproductive rights.

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