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Planet Week: The Planet is way behind on climate goals

Welcome to Planet Week, where we highlight the last week of environmental news and what it means for our Planet.

Last week, Jennifer Granholm was confirmed as United States energy secretary (with Deb Haaland likely to be confirmed as interior secretary soon). New research found that Antarctic glaciers are melting faster than we thought. And a Russian tanker showed how easy it is to sail across a melting Arctic. Yikes.

In case you missed it, here’s what else happened around the Planet:

Monday, February 22

Texas is now in the wake of its deadly winter storms, but recovery won’t be quick or easy. The state faces billions of dollars in energy bills, flooding from thawing pipes, and increased air pollution from closed industrial plants.

And no one can decide what or who to blame: Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott have taken aim at renewables, while ERCOT, the entity responsible for Texas’ power grid, is coming under fire from state officials for its lack of preparation (five board members have resigned following the outages).

Inside Climate News breaks down lessons learned. And this week in Planet Days, we wrote about the lasting impacts of the meltdown.

Remember the record-breaking Amazon fires of 2019? It turns out, 2020 was worse, according to NASA. One of NASA’s new tools detected 1.4 million thermal anomalies, or hot spots, in the Southern Amazon in 2020, compared to 1.1 million in 2019.

Fires across the board were up, with fire caused by deforestation up 23% and uncontrolled understory fires — the most environmentally destructive fires — up a whopping 60%. Since fires aren’t common in wet jungles, researchers think the blazes may have been caused by humans. Read more in The Verge.

Climate change is increasing flood risk across the U.S., and insurance companies aren’t keeping up. A new report by First Street Foundation finds that insurance companies must hike premiums by 4.5 times to meet the costs of actual flood risk this year.

The report finds that over 4 million homes face an estimated $20 billion in damages from flooding in 2021. Remarkably, many of these homes fall outside of FEMA’s designated Special Flood Hazard Area, where homeowners aren’t required to buy flood insurance — some don’t even know they’re at risk. With the inevitability of increasing rates, the findings challenge us to find new ways to adapt to growing climate impacts.

“It’s going to be hurting communities,” Carolyn Kousky, executive director of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Center, told USA TODAY. “And so we need to start having that national conversation: How do we grapple with this risk that we’re facing as a country and develop some policy solutions to really help people transition in the face of this growing risk?”

Tuesday, February 23

A new report finds freshwater fish populations are in freefall. As many as one-third of global populations of freshwater fish now face extinction, with 16 species disappearing in 2020 alone.

The report claims freshwater fish are “undervalued” and often left out of global conversations on biodiversity, leaving them exposed to pollution, overfishing, climate change, and invasive species. And with 80 freshwater species already lost, there’s little time to reverse the trend.

“I think this report… remind[s] people that these species are in decline and linked to a lot of food security, jobs, and cultural services,” Stuart Orr, a freshwater manager at World Wildlife Fund, told NBC News. “As we look to adapt to climate change and we start to think about all the discussions that governments are going to have on biodiversity, it’s really a time for us to shine a light back on freshwater.”

Thursday, February 25

A new study finds that the Atlantic’s current, which distributes heat across the Planet, is the slowest it’s been in 1,600 years. Scientists are blaming global warming, which melts ice in northern waters and can throw off the temperature balance of the ocean.

Since the current regulates everything from temperatures to sea level, this slowdown could bring more heat waves to Europe, increase sea levels in the U.S., and send fish migrations northward, reports InsideClimate News.

If we keep emitting greenhouse gases, the ocean current could collapse entirely, as happened in 2004’s film “The Day After Tomorrow.” In one of Hollywood’s rare forays into climate cinema, that movie depicts larger-than-life weather disasters sending the world into chaos (though it probably won’t that dramatic in reality). The Washington Post has more.

It’s not just freshwater fish that are hurting. The Mexican government and World Wildlife Fund reported monarch butterfly populations spending their winter in Mexico shrunk 26% from a year earlier.

Climate change — with its hotter, drier summers and colder, wetter winters — has taken the biggest toll on the species, with deforestation a close second. But while the number of butterflies making the 2,000-mile journey from Canada to Mexico has been decreasing for years, the species is not yet at risk of extinction. NPR has the story.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres briefs the press at COP 25, 2019. Photo credit: UN Climate Change

Friday, February 26

The Planet is way behind on its climate goals. Like, wayyy behind. A new United Nations report looks at countries’ most-recent medium-term climate targets, finding that these targets would cut global emissions a mere 1% by 2030.

To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target set at the Paris Agreement, we need to cut emissions by 45%. Let me repeat that: We’re at 1% and need to get to 45%. “Today’s interim report… is a red alert for our planet,” said U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres in a statement.

The good news is that the analysis is far from complete. The study only reviews new climate targets, which came in from 75 nations and account for 30% of global emissions. But that begs the question, where’s everyone else? The U.N. is still waiting on over half of all countries to submit fresh targets, including top emitters China and the U.S. CarbonBrief delivers a deep dive.

Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret, at 26 days old. Photo: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Bonus

Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered in Wyoming in 1981. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced the first successful clone of the endangered species, with far-reaching implications for conservation efforts.

“How can we actually apply some of those advances in science for conservation?” Ryan Phelan, who leads the company that coordinated the cloning, told The Associated Press. “Because conservation needs more tools in the toolbox. That’s our whole motivation. Cloning is just one of the tools.”

See you next week.

— Brandon and Sam

Planet Days

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Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

Brandon Pytel & Sam Liptak

Written by

Brandon works in environmental communications in Washington, DC. Sam studies journalism at American University in Washington, DC.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

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