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Major environmental stories of July 2014

Hundred of homes in Washington State have been destroyed by wildfires.
Hundred of homes in Washington State have been destroyed by wildfires.Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Japan Meteorological Agency reported that last month was the hottest June in over 120 years of record keeping. As April and May were exceptionally hot as well, the entire second quarter of 2014 was the hottest on record. NASA's records showed similar observations. According to NASA, last June was the third warmest on record, while the second quarter of 2014 was the second hottest on record. The second quarter of 2010 was the hottest second quarter on record.

There are immense wildfires burning in Russia, the U.S. Northwest, and the Northwest Territory of Canada. The Carlton Complex Fire, which is the largest fire in Washington State's history, was declared a federal disaster area by the President on July 24. It is one of scores of fires in the U.S. Northwest. In Canada, 904,000 hectares (2,334,000 acres) have burned so far this year, compared to the ten-year average of 142,000 hectares. The Russian fires have largely been concentrated in Yakutia, which sits atop a large pile of thawing permafrost, and may be the most carbon-rich area in the entire Arctic Northern Hemisphere. Global warming here is 0.5° C (0.9° F) per decade, which over twice the average rate elsewhere. Because of its large carbon store, Yakutia could release a lot of carbon and methane into the atmosphere and thus exacerbate climate change.

Hurricane Arthur, the first named storm of the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season, became the first storm to have its storm surge mapped by the National Hurricane Center. The NHC had unveiled its experimental storm surge maps last month. These maps will be used to help residents of coastal areas better appreciate the dangers of a storm surge, which causes most of the damage seen in a hurricane or tropical storm. Storm surges have become increasingly dangerous because growing coastal populations and rising sea levels.

India's finance minister has decided to double the tax on every metric ton of coal mined or imported in the country. The tax has been $0.83 per metric ton since 2010; doubling it will increase the tax to $1.67 per metric ton. The resultant revenue would go to the National Clean Energy Fund, which finances renewable energy projects. The projects being considered include a program for promoting wind energy production throughout the country, covering canals with solar panels, and having 22,000 MW solar power capacity by 2022.

The Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) endorsed fossil fuel divestment, agreeing to phase out its own holdings and encourage its members to do the same. The WCC Central Committee is made up of dozens of religious leaders from over 300 churches that represent 590 million people in 150 countries. Guillermo Kerber, who coordinates the WCC’s work on care for creation and climate justice said “The general ethical guidelines for investment already included the concern for a sustainable environment, for future generations and CO2 footprint. Adding fossil fuels to the list of sectors where the WCC does not invest in serves to strengthen the governing body’s commitment on climate change as expressed in various sessions of the Central Committee.”

In a recent issue of the journal Science, biologists warn that the loss and decline of animals is contributing to what may be the beginnings of the world's sixth mass extinction. Since 1500, over 320 land vertebrates have gone extinct, while the survivors have declined by an average of 25% in abundance. Large animals like elephants, rhinos, and bears show the highest rate of decline, because of their smaller populations and lower rate of reproduction. Scientists also noted that while the human population doubled over the past 35 years, the number of invertebrates like beetles, spiders, butterflies, and worms declined by 45% during that same time. In both cases, the losses are caused by climate change and habitat loss.

The Australian Academy of Science put together a think tank devoted to studying the impacts climate change could have on human health. The think tank concentrated on five main areas: temperature and extreme weather events, infectious diseases, food and water supplies, social instability, and human livelihood. The think tank spent two days analyzing these concerns before making recommendations that will form the basis of a report that will be released later this year. Recommendations included improving early warning systems, helping poor communities, and reducing food waste.

There are now more people in the U.S. solar industry than there are coal miners. The non-profit Solar Foundation estimates there are about 142,000 people in the U.S. who spend at least 50% of their time working with solar power. By contrast, there are 123,000 coal miners. The coal industry still hires more people overall, when one adds people who work in maintenance or transportation. Solar power is definitely growing, with 43 GWH or gigawatt hours of solar panels being installed worldwide this year. (a gigawatt is a billion watts.) 6.6 GWH will be installed in the U.S. over the year, and China and India are also making large investments in solar power.

According to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization, climate change has already made the world five times as dangerous and disaster-prone as it was in the 1970's. During the first decade of the 21st century, there were 3496 natural disasters including floods, storms, droughts, and heat waves. There were 743 such disasters during the 1970's, and all of these weather events have been linked to climate change. 80% of the disasters from the first decade of the 21st century were storms and/or floods. These storms are taking a toll on the U.S. economy. Five of the costliest global disasters took place in the U.S. All five were storms, and they caused a total of $294 billion in damages. Heat waves weren't even considered a major threat in the 1970's -- but one caused 55,000 deaths in Russia in 2010.