By: Nora Germain
2020 was one of the most chaotic, trying, and unpredictable years in world history. The pandemic, widespread social and political unrest and other factors contributed to what was a very difficult year for most people, and the climate crisis also contributed to that chaos as well.
While millions of people were rightly occupied with things like isolation, grief, voting rights, protests and vaccine news, many of the most important headlines on the state of our climate got lost in the turmoil. I’d like to share with you the most consequential of those headlines, so that we might better understand where we are now and how we can move forward in the very urgent fight against climate change.
The most memorable of the climate disasters of 2020 was probably the wildfires on the West Coast of the United States, and while skies in San Francisco and other locations turned a deep orange, it wasn’t just the apocalyptic appearance that should have been most memorable. The 2020 wildfire season burned over 4 million acres and was the most severe fire season ever recorded.
2017 was another devastating season for wildfires, but 2020 managed to be even more intense, causing damage to some of the world’s oldest and biggest trees in the Redwood and Sequoia forests. Australia also suffered severe wildfires, as well as Russia, the Amazon, and other locations.
Less widely reported and much less widely photographed were the consequences of rapidly melting sea ice in the arctic, which in 2020 was measured at a level that NASA called “the second lowest minimum extent on record.” That means that the ice is covering less land, it’s melting faster, and it’s starting to freeze later and later in the year. This is caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which trap heat and raise the temperature of and around planet Earth, which is a phenomenon seen more intensely at the poles than in other places.
This rapid melting of sea ice is thought to be in part due to a heatwave that occurred over Siberia in early 2020, but this pattern can be traced back to about 40 years ago when arctic ice started to retreat more dramatically in the late 1970’s.
In addition to 2020 being a record-breaking year (in a bad way) for fires and ice sheets, it was also a devastating year for hurricanes — yet again — the worst we’ve ever seen. 2020 ended with 30 named storms (storms that were big enough to be given a name), and Hurricane Iota was the strongest storm to ever hit Nicaragua in history.
Sadly Iota came only two weeks after another severe Hurricane — Eta — also made landfall. This data alone should be enough to ensure that nobody is confused about the speed with which the climate crisis is worsening. 2020 was much worse in these areas than years past, and this crisis is not something that is simply developing. It is here, and it’s up to us to decide how much worse it gets.
2020 was also a record year for heat. It was the second hottest year in 141 years according to Scientific American, second only to 2016. It should not comfort anyone that in a Google search of “2020 Heat,” the entire first page of results is dedicated solely to the NBA team the Miami Heat.
For anyone who thinks it’s normal for summers to be hot and for heat waves to come and go, July of 2020 was “427th-consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th-century average.” This of course exacerbates droughts, which can not only be deadly and interrupt water supplies for millions of people — but also can cause crops and local economies to fail.
Happily, global average greenhouse gas emissions dropped by between 7% and 9% due to the COVID pandemic, which should not be understood as an “economy versus environment” paradox, but rather could be seen as a bitter-sweet silver lining to a situation out of our hands.
We bought ourselves a little bit of extra time, but it’s important to remember that human civilization and life as we know it does not have to come to a grinding and painful halt in order to solve the climate crisis, but rather, there are many behaviors (such as working from home like the cooperative does) that we can learn from in our efforts going forward.
The final headline from 2020, and the one that is perhaps most promising, is the shift in political power in the United States. With Democrats in charge of the presidency, the House and the Senate, there is new hope and potential for America to lead the world in climate solutions. These could take the form of new policy, global alliances, more ambitious goals, increased regulations, tax cuts for electric vehicles or solar panels, more funding for innovation (possibly in blockchain as well), a carbon tax, a reallocation of subsidies, expansion of protected lands, and so forth.
Representative Deb Haaland was recently appointed to be Secretary of the Interior, and she will be the first Native American to hold this position. This appointment is historic on many levels, not least of them spiritual, and her leadership will hopefully inspire a renewed sense of respect for Indigenous people and for the beauty and true value of their lands.
There’s no question that 2020 has been the worst year of our self-inflicted climate crisis, and time is of the essence, now more than ever. 2021 offers new hope, and with this now irrefutable knowledge that climate change is rapidly worsening year to year, we have a chance to mitigate human, wildlife and economic losses and finally put ourselves on track to solve it.