Three climate indicators: Biden's investments, Dutch protests, and droughts : The Indicator from Planet Money The sweltering heat has us wondering, how exactly are people responding to climate change? Today on The Indicator, we're going green with three environmental indicators. Stay tuned for a sliver of hope at the end.

Heating up the weekend with three climate indicators

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC’S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods, here with Paddy Hirsch...

PADDY HIRSCH, HOST:

Hello, hello.

WOODS: ...And also, special guest, Planet Money's Kenny Malone.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Special guest - I do feel special now.

WOODS: Yeah, no, it's good to have you here for Indicators of the Week.

MALONE: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Rapping) Yo.

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MALONE: Who says yo in that? Is it you, Darian?

WOODS: Yo (laughter).

So this is where we each pick an indicator, like a number or an event - just something that caught our eye from the week. Today, our indicators are all about climate change and the environment. Stay with us.

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WOODS: All right. Kenny Malone, let's start with your climate change indicator. What do you have for us?

MALONE: Yeah. So I wanted to start with a bit of a newsy one here. So on Wednesday, President Biden went to an old coal factory about an hour and a half south of Boston.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, hello, Massachusetts.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MALONE: All of Massachusetts applauding there.

WOODS: (Laughter).

MALONE: We have since learned that the president may or may not have had COVID during this press conference. But, for sure, the president was there to announce a bunch of money to, quote, "protect communities from extreme heat and dangerous climate impacts."

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BIDEN: Today, I'm making the largest investment ever - $2.3 billion...

MALONE: Two-point-three billion dollars is my climate indicator of the week. And to be clear, this, like, highest amount ever - this is specifically for FEMA-administered money that will go to resilience projects against things like heat waves, droughts, floods, etc.

WOODS: OK.

MALONE: However, we should note that Biden is doing all of this unilaterally - like, through executive action - because the bigger spending package in Congress functionally died last week when West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said that he would not support that package because of...

WOODS: Does it rhyme with temptation?

MALONE: Yes - inflation.

WOODS: OK.

MALONE: I mean, look - like, there has always been this tension between dealing with climate change and then people saying, but what about the economy? Like, what about right now? But for me, this Biden-at-the-coal-plant moment represents a new version of this tension because, like, on one hand, we are in the middle of a record-setting heat wave - this urgent, like, what-else-do-you-need-to-see kind of climate problem. And yet, there does happen to simultaneously be this unusually urgent economic problem, which is the highest inflation that some of us have ever seen in our lifetimes.

And, you know, I guess we should also say that, like, a lot of people expected Biden to, even without Congress, take bigger action to issue a climate emergency declaration, which theoretically could be a way to unlock more money without Congress. He did not do that. And he has said he's exploring that option, which is why, for now, the indicator we've got is $2.3 billion.

WOODS: Not nothing, but also not, you know, paradigm-shifting money.

MALONE: Yep.

WOODS: So a story about government giving to help combat climate change. And Paddy, your one is kind of about the government taking things away.

HIRSCH: Yes. Not the U.S. government - in this case, the government of the Netherlands or Holland. It's the Dutch government. It has decided that, in order to fall in line with European Union emissions requirements, it's going to reduce the size of its cow, pig and poultry stock by 30%. So that's my indicator of the week - 30 - 30%. And just to give you an idea of the scale of the problem, there are 1.57 million cows in Holland, 12 million pigs, roughly 49 million broiler chickens, and that compares to a human population of about 17 million.

WOODS: All right. So we will each get about three chickens.

HIRSCH: Yeah, and we're not even talking about the cows and the pigs there.

WOODS: Yeah.

HIRSCH: And the reason that there are so many of these animals is that the Netherlands is the European Union's largest meat exporter. It's actually second only to the United States in terms of global agricultural exports.

WOODS: That is so interesting 'cause it's, like, this tiny sliver of land.

HIRSCH: Yeah. I mean, it's not insignificant. It's about 16,000 square miles - about twice the size of New Jersey. But it is small, and that's the problem. You know, Holland has become this agricultural powerhouse, and its success as a meat producer and processor means it now has by far the highest density of livestock in the EU. And while those animals produce a lot of meat, they also produce a lot of gas.

WOODS: Now, I know a weird amount about this because of coming from New Zealand, where the cow stock and the sheep stock is also enormous. So yeah, it's a big issue, which is the methane coming from these animals, right?

HIRSCH: Well, it's actually not methane. In this case, it's nitrogen...

WOODS: Huh.

HIRSCH: ...Which, in its nitrous oxide form - you know, the gas that comes off the manure - that nitrous oxide is 10 to 15 times more powerful than methane when it comes to warming the planet. Then there's, of course, nitrogen in the form of ammonia, which also pollutes water sources when manure mixed with urine leaches into the water table. So there's that, too. It's like this whole cornucopia of, you know, environmental horrors that comes from the backs of animals.

Anyway, the Dutch government has set a target of a 50% reduction in nitrogen emissions by 2030. And to hit that target, they're going to have to reduce the animal population. What it certainly means is buying farmers out, maybe closing some farms, possibly by force through eminent domain. And of course, it could also mean culling animals.

MALONE: There it is.

WOODS: Very sad.

MALONE: There's - that shoe is always there.

HIRSCH: And farmers are not happy about this, right? They've taken to the streets to protest. They've been disrupting traffic. They stormed a provincial assembly in one case, and a bunch of them have driven a convoy of tractors into the capital, The Hague. The farmers say they're being unfairly singled out. And they point out that a number of other industries like aviation, construction and transportation also contribute to emissions, but they face far fewer rules than the farmers are being slapped with. The government, of course, is not listening. So kind of bad news for farmers in Holland.

MALONE: All right. Paddy, tough to follow that one up, but, Darian, we now turn to you for what has been promised to be a somewhat uplifting climate indicator. My arms are crossed. My face is skeptical. Proceed.

WOODS: All right. I'll do my best. So this indicator is about deaths from droughts.

MALONE: Great.

HIRSCH: I thought this was supposed to be about good news.

WOODS: Bear with me. The deaths from droughts have fallen, and they've fallen not just by a little bit but a lot over the last century.

HIRSCH: Well, that's a very dark cloud that has a slightly silver lining, I would say.

WOODS: Well, I mean, it's not insignificant. So according to the international disaster database, the world was averaging 470,000 deaths a year from drought in the 1920s. So it's like a high school worth of people dying from drought and its associated famine and hunger every single day. But if we look at the last 10 years, the 2010s, there are only about 2,000 drought-related deaths a year, which is less than six people dying a day. It's this huge, huge drop.

HIRSCH: That is a huge drop. Any clue as to what's behind it?

WOODS: The short answer is that we're a lot richer as a world. So people from drought-affected areas can import food, or everyone else can afford to send them food. And this isn't to downplay the serious issues of hunger and malnutrition that's happening right now in pockets of the world. Shortages of food is a huge problem in places like Yemen and Afghanistan. But it's worth reflecting on these long-term global trends, which is much less death from droughts.

HIRSCH: Well, that is - no, that is a silver lining. That is a - that's a solidly silver lining.

WOODS: Yeah, I think it's a solid silver lining. And part of that reason why this is happening is as the world has educated their populations and built infrastructure and opened up to trade, their people have become more prosperous. So in 1929, more than half the world lived in extreme poverty. So that's less than the equivalent of $2 a day. And now that number is down to 1 in 10 people - still too high but, you know, a huge reduction. You know, there have been these huge gains from Nigeria to Vietnam to China.

HIRSCH: Oh, yeah. China's got to be a huge contributor to that.

MALONE: I can't help but listen to this, Darian, and feel like I see your cloud. I see your silver lining, but then I see a little cloud on the edge of the silver lining, which is that, like, if it is increased industrialization that has reduced the deaths from droughts, aren't those the same factors that would be driving climate change, which would then cause more droughts in the future?

WOODS: That's totally true. Like, these are not easy issues. And look, it's worth stating the frequencies of the droughts themselves are increasing due to climate change, and that's got all kinds of harms for people and for the ecosystem. But it's just worth noting that our resilience as people, our ability to avoid the worst outcomes from those droughts, has improved a lot over the last century.

HIRSCH: Well, I'm encouraged. I'm encouraged. I'm a believer in the ability of the human race and market economics to triumph over these issues if we put our minds to it.

WOODS: All right. So, Paddy, we got you to be a bit encouraged. Kenny?

MALONE: No. Check in in a year, and we'll see where it's at. Bring me your next graph of drought data.

WOODS: (Laughter).

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WOODS: I'll do my best, Kenny. I'm up to the challenge.

MALONE: Thanks, Darian.

WOODS: This episode was produced by our senior producer, Viet Le, with engineering help from Robert Rodriguez. It was fact-checked by Kathryn Yang. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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