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The Year in Climate Change

Welcome to the final edition of Climate Fwd: for 2021! Despite the strange limbo status of this year (as our friends on the Styles desk described it), a lot happened this year on the topic of climate change and the environment. We’ve rounded up the highlights of our coverage here.

It may seem hard to believe that the year started with a presidential transition, riots at the Capitol and a blackout in Texas — but that was indeed this year. Before summer had even begun, drought, heat and fires were already bearing down on the West. It’s been a year of challenges to a new administration’s climate agenda at home in the United States. And then fall brought the United Nations international climate conference in Glasgow. (Next year’s event is scheduled for November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.)

Those are just a few big news stories. This year we also investigated, explained, debunked. Take a look at our roundup for anything you might have missed. Think we missed something? Let us know.

Thanks for reading. See you in 2022.

Chile. The Democratic Republic of Congo. Bolivia. The United States. These far-flung locales have one thing in common: They are home to natural resources at the center of competition for electric-car resources that will shape the 21st century.

For the latest article in The Times’s Race to the Future series, a yearlong project from colleagues all across the newsroom, Somini Sengupta traveled to the salt flats in Chile, the world’s second-largest producer of lithium. (Lithium is a key component in batteries.)

As demand grows and prices soar, mining companies in Chile are keen to increase production, as are politicians who see mining as crucial to national prosperity. But some Chileans argue that the country’s very economic model, based on extraction of natural resources, has taken too high an environmental toll and failed to spread the benefits to all citizens, including its Indigenous people.

Amid this boom, a group of Chileans have been elected to the Constitutional Convention to write a new constitution during what they have declared a “climate and ecological emergency.”

The convention members will decide many things, including: How should mining be regulated, and what voice should local communities have over mining? Should Chile retain a presidential system? Should nature have rights? How about future generations?

Read the full article to see the competing forces they are up against.

Quotable: “Someone buys an electric car and feels very good because they’re saving the planet,” said Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist who is in the Constitutional Convention. “At the same time an entire ecosystem is damaged. It’s a big paradox.”

Christopher Flavelle

Even by the standards of an already terrible year, the toll from the tornadoes that tore through the South and Midwest this month was shocking: More than 90 people killed across Kentucky and four other states, with many more left homeless.

But that toll reflected the consequences of human decisions, as much the force of the tornadoes. As I wrote recently, engineers know how to protect people and buildings against tornadoes: Safe rooms offer “near-absolute protection,” emergency officials say, while advances in structural design can keep buildings from flying apart in all but the most severe winds.

Yet efforts to incorporate those advances into the building code have repeatedly been stopped or curtailed by the building industry, which experts say is driven by a concern about higher construction costs. That worry persists despite evidence that tornado-resistant design increases the price of building a house by as little as a few thousand dollars.

In that sense, the failure to incorporate scientific advances into the building code may offer cause for hope: If the latest devastation was made worse by human decisions, then different decisions can make future disasters less deadly.

Quotable: “It really does kind of boil down to money,” said Jason Thompson, vice president of engineering at the National Concrete Masonry Association and one of the proponents of tougher codes. “There’s just different groups out there that want to keep the cost of construction as low as possible.”

Two eminent scientists who helped shape our understanding of the planet, and particularly the animals we share it with, died this week: Edward O. Wilson, 92, and Thomas Lovejoy, 80.

As an expert on insects, Dr. Wilson studied the evolution of behavior, exploring how natural selection and other forces could produce something as extraordinarily complex as an ant colony. He then championed this kind of research as a way of making sense of all behavior — including our own.

In 2016, Dr. Wilson published “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” his 32nd book and a personal exhortation to conserve biodiversity. The book offers an improbable prescription for the environment: Dr. Wilson suggests that humans set aside roughly 50 percent of the planet as a sort of permanent preserve, undisturbed by man. (This interview explores his lifelong quest, in his own words.)

Dr. Lovejoy’s field research in the Amazon was the centerpiece of a broad career dedicated to ecology. He invented “debt for nature” swaps, which let countries trade forgiveness of a portion of their foreign debt for their investments in conservation. He published an early projection of extinction rates, was a creator of the public television series “Nature” and popularized the term “biological diversity,” later shortened to biodiversity.

Read more biodiversity news from 2021:

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