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Planet Week: The tropics may become unlivable

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

Last week, the Biden administration restored migratory bird protections. Jeff Bezos revealed more about his $10 billion Earth Fund. And the Senate confirmed Michael Regan as EPA administrator.

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

Monday, March 8

A new study finds that climate change is creating deadly conditions in the tropics, which are home to more than 3 billion people. The study warns that we must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or the region risks passing the “limit of human adaptation.”

The researchers looked at how wet-bulb temperatures — a measure of air temperature and humidity — change in a warming world. As wet-bulb temperatures exceed a certain degree, human bodies can’t cool down fast enough to survive.

“If it is too humid our bodies can’t cool off by evaporating sweat — this is why humidity is important when we consider livability in a hot place,” Yi Zhang, lead author of the study, told The Guardian. “High body core temperatures are dangerous or even lethal.”

From land-use to packaging to transportation, food has a huge carbon footprint — and new research puts a number on it. In 2015, food systems were responsible for 34% of global emissions.

The study unpacks each step of the food chain, finding that 71% of those emissions came from agricultural food production, which uses up half of Earth’s habitable land, drives deforestation, and degrades soils. But not everyone is equally responsible — while the share of global food emissions has grown 14% since 1990, China’s alone rose by 41%. Carbon Brief has the story.

Not to ruin your buzz, but a new study looks at how cannabis production may contribute to climate change, and the results aren’t great, reports Earther.

The research suggests for every eighth of weed consumers buy, there is a 41-pound carbon footprint attached. Roughly 80% of the total emissions come from practices linked to indoor cultivation, such as high-intensity grow lights and carbon dioxide supply. But there is still a spark of hope.

“If indoor cannabis cultivation were to be fully converted to outdoor production, these preliminary estimates show that the state of Colorado, for example, would see a reduction of more than 1.3% in the state’s annual [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the study says.

Wednesday, March 10

As the COVID-19 pandemic grinded economies to a halt, many countries vowed to use recovery plans to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. But out of the nearly $15 trillion in recovery spending, only 2.5% has gone toward “green” initiatives, according to a new United Nations-Oxford University report.

“Despite positive steps towards a sustainable COVID-19 recovery from a few leading nations, the world has so far fallen short of matching aspirations to build back better,” Brian O’Callaghan, the report’s co-author, said in a statement. “Governments can use this moment to secure long-term economic, social, and environmental prosperity.”

Since pandemic spending is ongoing, countries still have a chance to push carbon-free, climate-friendly initiatives. The report urges investments in areas like green energy, building updates, clean transportation, and nature-based solutions. Read more in TIME.

With news like this, it’s tough to remain optimistic. In Planet Days, we wrote about how we’re losing the fight against climate change, but that’s not a free pass to give up hope.

Thursday, March 11

With the passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill Wednesday, Biden scored the first big win of his presidency. Though the big-ticket items were unemployment benefits, child tax credits, and $1,400 stimulus checks, a number of environmental provisions also snuck in:

  • The bill devotes $30 billion to public transit and $350 billion to supporting state and local governments, much of which will go to improving infrastructure like water and sewage, two systems especially vulnerable to climate change, writes The Atlantic.
  • Additionally, $50 billion goes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund, $95 million to the Fish and Wildlife Service for preventing the spread of diseases by wildlife, and $1.5 billion to public lands over the next two years, reports E&E News.

The bill passed on strict party lines, bypassing the filibuster through a process called budget reconciliation, which we wrote about in Planet Days. But don’t expect that to be the case for Biden’s next big legislative push: infrastructure and climate. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a key swing vote, told Axios he’d nix any efforts if Republicans weren’t included.

Because it inhales and exhales large swaths of CO2, the Amazon is a key part of global climate regulation. But new research finds that human activities like logging, dam-building, and cattle ranching could be offsetting the rainforest’s global-cooling effect.

“When you start to look at these other factors alongside CO2, it gets really hard to see how the net effect isn’t that the Amazon as a whole is really warming global climate,” lead author Kristofer Covey told National Geographic.

Another study out last week finds humans have degraded or destroyed two-thirds of global rainforests, threatening invaluable resources we can’t afford to lose. CNN has more.

Ten years ago, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated Japan’s coast. The resulting destruction killed 18,000 people, displaced more than half a million people, and caused the largest nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl.

Fukushima’s coastal nuclear plant was completely unprepared for the 56-foot wave that slammed into it. The water overwhelmed sea walls, flooding the plant and causing meltdowns at three reactors. Hydrogen explosions further spewed radiation across the region.

Though a decade has passed, the cleanup is ongoing. Already Japan has spent $300 billion to rebuild the region, though some doubt if the nuclear plant will ever be completely secure. The Associated Press explains the complicated cleanup effort.

Bonus

A group of whale watchers in Antarctica had an unforgettable experience this week: A pod of orcas chased a gentoo penguin straight into their boat. Luckily, they caught it on all on video.

“It was like watching a National Geographic episode on location,” Matt Karsten, who filmed the encounter, told The Daily Mail. “I imagine the penguin was very relieved to get away.”

Have a great 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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