How Will West Coast Wildfires Impact the U.S. Economy?
By Timothy Rooks
The many wildfires roaring through America's West Coast don't just look scary, they are bad for people's health, bad for public and private lands, and bad for the economy.
The plumes of smoke have pushed air quality to hazardous levels forcing residents to stay indoors. Now some of the dirtiest air on Earth is wafting along the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles up to the Canadian border. Millions of people are at the mercy of merciless flames.
So far, well over 5 million acres have burned across California, Oregon, Washington State and neighboring Idaho. Many of the fires are still not under control and tens of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes and at least 27 people have died. Many of the survivors have nothing to come back to.
In August, California was pummeled by an incredible heat wave. Temperatures in Death Valley reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, "possibly the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth," according to the New York Times.
Not surprisingly, up until now most of the talk has been about climate change and how the fires may impact the U.S. presidential election. On September 14, Joe Biden called Donald Trump a "climate arsonist." Ominously one day later, smoke from some of the fires was actually visible above Washington, D.C.
When the smoke finally clears, the economic impact of so much destruction will be at the top of many people's list.
Counting Up the Losses
The costs around wildfires are multifold. Besides the irreplaceable loss of life and the enormous costs to put out the fires, there are many tangible elements like the damage to vehicles, homes and other buildings. These costs can be roughly calculated by looking at insurance claims.
Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wildland fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute.
But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year's fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Currently in California alone, thousands of structures have been damaged or destroyed. The state is known for building on steep slopes in rural areas surrounded by forests that are hard to access. And since the fires are still burning with no end in sight, it is impossible to tell how many will be damaged in the end and what the final costs will be. Add to that the fact that not everything is insured, and many things are underinsured and the actual costs get a little fuzzy.
Counting the Tourists
It is important to remember that these numbers just include personal property. Damage done to public lands like parks is not added in. What is a single tree worth or a beautiful forest view in a state park anyhow?
What can be calculated though is how many tourists stay away based on past visitor numbers. The West Coast is world-famous for its natural wonders, wine country and lively cities, so there is no worse publicity than burning trees and a sky filled with smoke to keep tourists away.
These frightening images have gone around the world and made a deep impression. A bad reputation is hard to get rid of. The travel industry was already suffering because of COVID-19 restrictions, now a recovery on the West Coast will be even harder.
Fear and Loathing in LA and Beyond
Other elements more difficult to tally are the costs of things that didn't happen like canceled flights, trains stopped in their tracks, workers on sick leave with respiratory problems, long-term health issues and other lost economic activity, either because a shop or warehouse burned down or there is no one left there to buy the goods.
Personal safety is also something to consider. Though U.S. housing sales are on a high, after so many natural disasters California may soon been seen as too dangerous a place to live or do business. In the end people may leave the coast for other, safer places.
Rebuilding is a lot of work and some may not be up to the challenge and may never come back as happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Higher insurance premiums for risky areas could help with these decisions.
In many ways these wildfires could not have come at a worse time. Besides scorched land, the coastal states will have less money to spend since their economies have been hit by coronavirus-related downturns. California in particular is dependent on global trade and needs huge sums of cash to run the state, invest in more costly firefighting and beat COVID-19.
Not Out of the Woods
The wildfires in California have gained a lot of attention because of the apocalyptic sky around San Francisco. Yet 2015 was the worst year for wildfires, according to numbers gathered on annual wildland fires in the U.S. by the National Interagency Coordination Center. That year there were over 68,000 fires that destroyed over 10 million acres in the U.S. In a close second place is 2017. Looking at the decades of collected data, the general trend is pointing toward ever more fires.
So far this year, the fires have not reached the level of 2015. Still experts point out that current higher temperatures, droughts and shorter winters all add to the possibility of more fires. A report issued by the National Interagency Fire Center on September 15 outlined the problem.
"Generally, most areas across the West received less than 25% of average precipitation in August. The precipitation received was mostly associated with thunderstorms and provided little benefit," according to the report. Not only that, temperatures were generally 2-4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.
This all means that the traditional fire season is longer than in the past. Frighteningly, in California it has now been extended to cover all 12 months. For years there has not been a month without a wildfire. These extra firefighting missions cost a lot in terms of manpower and equipment and take time away from fire prevention.
California Has Huge Economic Impact
California has the highest economic output of any American state, accounting for around 14% of the entire country's tab. Add in Oregon, Washington State and Idaho and the region accounts 19% of U.S. output. With increasing temperatures, climate change and less cash to invest because of the current downturn, the area needs to prepare for more uncontrollable fires.
Residents and businesses there will need to put fear aside and get used to higher insurance premiums and stricter building codes, or move to less turbulent places. The hot glow of embers may permanently reshape the dynamic West Coast and turn it an unwelcoming place — that would be an economic tragedy and make these wildfires truly costly.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.