It feels like we are lurching from one disaster to another: as wildfires blaze across part of the country, a hurricane swamps a different area—and all this happens as a pandemic continues to rage. Costs are steadily mounting, making action to stem the release of greenhouse gases ever more urgent. Hopes on that front remained unfulfilled in 2021, but the year did hold some bright spots—including Washington, D.C.’s U-turn on climate policy after President Joe Biden took office in January.
Here, we take a look back at some of the biggest climate stories of the year.
Heat, Wildfires and Floods
Climate change fueled weather extremes of every type around the world this year. Conflagrations raged across Siberia, Greece, India and other areas. California, a major epicenter of wildfire activity in recent years, again saw devastating blazes. The Dixie Fire, the second-largest in the state’s history, burned nearly one million acres. It and the Caldor Fire were the first to burn up and over the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a feat enabled by a landscape altered by climate change.
Wildfire activity across the western U.S. has been driven by extreme heat and drought, both of which were exacerbated by climate change. By early summer a record 93 percent of the West was in drought, leaving forests and grassland dry and primed to ignite. A major heat wave struck the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada in June, shattering temperature records. On the worst day of the event, temperatures in normally cool and damp Seattle hit 108 degrees Fahrenheit, while Portland reached a scorching 116 degrees F. It is thought the event—which one analysis found would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change—contributed to the deaths of several hundred people. More than a billion sea creatures also succumbed to the heat.
Months later torrential rains unleashed floods in the same area, displacing thousands of residents. Canadian officials called the downpours that hit British Columbia—where some places measured six inches of rain in a day—a “one-in-500-year” event. Rain-driven floods also swept through river valleys in Germany, Belgium and Denmark, destroying buildings and killing more than 200 people. An analysis found the European floods were up to nine times more likely in a warmer climate.
Another busy U.S. hurricane season—on the heels of the record-breaking one in 2020—also brought flooding to parts of the country. Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast as a Category 4 storm in August (on the anniversary of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina), after rapidly intensifying. It caused destruction across the state, particularly in low-income communities. Rain from Ida’s remnants went on to trigger deadly floods in parts of the Northeast, including New York City.
The Science Has Spoken
It is increasingly clear that such events—which destroyed so many homes, lives and livelihoods this year—are already being worsened by global warming, according to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in August. The report incorporates the latest research to give a comprehensive view of the state of climate science for the first time in eight years.
Put together by more than 200 scientists, the report is the most confident one to date on what is driving the changing climate, declaring that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”
The authors also warn that countries’ current commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will still allow global temperature to rise beyond the two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, the target limit agreed to under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
That gap between government ambition and effective action is a major factor in an issue that was thrust into the limelight this year: climate anxiety. The condition came to the fore after a landmark 10-country survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 was first published online in September in the Lancet Planetary Health. It found that 60 percent of respondents were “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change and that 45 percent said their associated feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety were impacting their daily life. The term “eco-anxiety,” by which this distress is also known, was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year.
This year the U.S.’s position on climate change was completely reversed from what it was in 2020, after Biden was inaugurated in January and began undoing his predecessor’s rollbacks of measures to stem warming. On day one in office that month, the Biden administration filed the paperwork needed to rejoin the Paris climate agreement as of February 19. He has also directed federal agencies to take climate change into account when evaluating infrastructure projects. Other Biden executive orders end federal financing of coal and other carbon-intensive projects abroad and, in an effort to address issues of environmental justice, stipulate that 40 percent of the benefits of federal climate action should go to disadvantaged communities.
On the global stage, Biden held an international summit on Earth Day (April 22), pledging the U.S. would cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030. The president subsequently joined with European Union leaders in promising to cut emissions of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
The Biden administration also initiated the nitty-gritty work of revamping federal rules and regulations to actually meet those targets, as well as of restaffing involved agencies that were gutted by previous president Donald Trump. The social cost of carbon—which helps account for the damage caused by climate change when evaluating various programs and projects—was raised to $51 a ton, up from as little as $1 a ton during the Trump administration. And just in December, the Environmental Protection Agency released stronger vehicle emissions standards—a key issue, because transportation is the biggest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
But some of the Biden administration’s actions have drawn criticism—notably, continuing to hold leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. The president’s aims have also hit roadblocks in Congress, where passing climate-related legislation is crucial because it is less subject to being reversed by subsequent administrations or to being challenged in court. Though Congress passed an infrastructure bill with climate provisions, the more substantial climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act have been stymied after Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia withdrew his support for the bill in December. That leaves a major question mark hanging over the president’s climate agenda going into the new year.
All Eyes on Glasgow
More question marks linger after the much anticipated 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) was finally held in Glasgow, beginning on October 31, after a year’s delay because of the coronavirus pandemic. The purpose of the meeting was for countries to strengthen their emissions reduction pledges under the Paris climate agreement. While many did, the revamped pledges were not as ambitious as environmental activists had hoped—or as climate scientists have said such pledges would need to be in order to keep warming below the two-degree-C (3.6-degree-F) goal. An analysis conducted after the meeting found that current commitments could still result in three degrees C (5.4 degrees F) of warming by 2100.
At the meeting, the U.S. declined to sign on to a commitment with more than 40 other countries to end coal burning, but it did reach an agreement with China to share technology that can help capture and store carbon and to develop methane-reduction policies. (The U.S. and China are the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions.) The U.S. also resisted efforts by developing countries, particularly small island nations, to establish funding to compensate them for the damages and irreparable losses already wrought by climate change.
Countries did agree to bring updated emissions reduction pledges to next year’s COP 27 meeting, to be held in Egypt, rather than waiting until 2025—giving some hope that 2022 will see the world come closer to averting climate catastrophe.