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October 2022, Volume 28, Number 4

Climate Change

The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services issued a report in July 2022 that concluded that half of the world’s people rely on 50,000 wild species for at least some of their food, energy, medicine and income. Earlier reports concluded that a million plant and animal species were at risk of extinction, and that governments were doing too little to prevent catastrophic biodiversity collapse.

Plants use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide from the air into energy that is stored in the soil. Many food companies want farmers to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prompting the development of programs that pay farmers to adopt practices such as planting cover crops that store more carbon dioxide in their soil. Cargill in 2022 is offering farmers $25 per metric ton of carbon dioxide that they take from the atmosphere and store in the soil.

Should countries that emit carbon compensate countries that suffer from global warming? A study published in July 2022 estimated that the five leading carbon emitters caused $5 trillion in economic losses between 1990 and 2014, including $1.8 trillion each from the US and China and $500 billion each from Russia, India, and Brazil. The methodology involved estimating how much emissions raised temperatures in various countries, and how rising temperatures reduced GDP growth.

World Bank president David Malpass in September 2022 agreed that burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change, writing “it’s clear that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are causing climate change, and that the sharp increase in the use of coal, diesel, and heavy fuel oil in both advanced economies and developing countries is creating another wave of the climate crisis.”

European nations experienced record heat and drought in summer 2022, with temperatures topping 40C or 104F in London and Paris; the temperature was 51C or 124F in Sicily. Wildfires forced evacuations and reduced air quality, and rivers including the Rhine and Po were at historic low levels.

The US also experienced record heat in Texas and the Midwest in summer 2022, wildfires in the west, and drought that is drying up of the Great Salt Lake and reducing flows in the Colorado River. The seven hottest years in the US since the 1880s have occurred since 2015, including a record 134F in Death Valley in July 1913. Death Valley is a below-sea-level desert in southeastern California surrounded by high mountains. The warmest and coldest days in the mainland US are west of the Mississippi river.

China also experienced drought and hotter temperatures in summer 2022. The Three Gorges Dam, China’s biggest hydropower project that lies upriver on the Yangtze, released extra water to allow shipping on the Yangtze to continue. Heat in the center of China was accompanied by flooding at the edges of the country, leading to floods and displacement.

Many analysts attributed the record heat and drought of 2022 to climate change. However, policy makers had more immediate priorities, including grappling with inflation and the war in Ukraine. Some of the younger people most concerned about climate change do not vote.

President Biden promised to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, which requires changing how electricity is generated and a higher share of electric cars. The US emitted 6.6 billion tons of greenhouse gases in 2005 and 5.2 billion tons in 2020.

Economists have long argued that the most efficient policy to reduce emissions is a tax on carbon that would give emitters incentives to reduce their emissions by buying and selling rights to emit, carbon trading. Economists say that the optimal carbon tax is about $50 per ton emitted, drawing criticism from activists who believe the price should be $100 or more per ton. Furthermore, activists argued that, as with freer trade, carbon taxes would be borne by poorer residents.

The Inflation Reduction Act enacted in August 2022 uses subsidies for clean energy rather than carbon taxes to encourage an energy transition. Many activists favor more government investment as contained in the IRA rather than carbon taxes.

About three-fourths of the world’s fresh water is frozen ice that is concentrated in Antarctica and Greenland; if all of the world’s ice melted sea levels would rise up to 300 feet. The East Antarctica Ice Sheet is about the size of the US and accounts for over half of the world’s ice.

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