2021 made climate change impossible to ignore

It wasn’t a perfect year. But finally, it seems, people in power are starting to pay attention to climate change.

Illustration of a man in a suit standing behind a lectern. It is raining heavily and water is floodi...
Illustration by Pete Gamlen

We’ve known that human activity contributes to climate change for decades now. By the 1950s, scientists were starting to raise warning flags, and by the 1980s — with early signs of the planet’s warming becoming clear — they started ringing the alarm bells. Speaking conservatively, we’ve had four decades to do something. Yet emissions have largely ticked up every year. Every indicator we have says that if we don’t cut our greenhouse gas emissions significantly by the end of the decade, we’re doomed to a future of nearly unlivable conditions.

With that window closing, it seems reality has become harder to ignore. For the first time in a long time, it looks like the pendulum is starting to swing toward action. 2021 saw perhaps the most significant steps toward addressing climate change in history, from corporations embracing net-zero emissions goals to nations and governments around the world putting forth meaningful policies to reduce our impact on the planet. Putting aside the very pressing question as to whether any of it is enough to matter, the way we discuss and approach climate change certainly shifted this year.

The public wakes up

Climate change was not always a polarizing issue. It was simply a reality backed by a majority of the scientific community and accepted by politicians and the general public alike. Then conservative media and the fossil fuel industry got into bed with each other and started to sow doubt with misinformation. As a result, climate change has been treated for years now as a partisan issue — something the public is split on because of differing ideologies, rather than because of insidious lie-peddling.

But in 2021, that seems to have begun to change. In the U.S., 6 in 10 Americans now view climate change as a serious problem, a significant uptick from just a few years ago. More than half the population views addressing the matter as critical to our future, and nearly 60% of voters expressed support for the U.S. joining (well, rejoining) the Paris climate agreement.

Not only do people seem more attuned to the fact that climate change is real and urgent, but they also are more willing to actually take personal action in order to address it. A poll conducted in 2021 found that 80% of Americans would be willing to change their behavior in order to combat climate change. That is a minor miracle, as Americans are hesitant to change basically anything in the name of the collective good (gestures in the direction of an ongoing pandemic).

Increasingly, there seems to be a sense among conservative voters that climate change is real: Nearly half now side with the science.

Perhaps most shocking is the fact that even Republicans seem to be coming to terms with climate change. No, not their presidential candidate, and not most of their elected officials, but some of the party’s voters at least are coming to their senses. Increasingly, there seems to be a sense among conservative voters that climate change is real: Nearly half now side with the science. Some Republican politicians have even started reckoning with this, though they’ve been hesitant to embrace clean energy — likely because they have lots of checks in their campaign coffers with signatures of oil execs on them.

World leaders start to lead

Greta Thunberg created a new motto to describe how politicians and elected officials have handled climate change thus far: “Blah, blah, blah.” It’s been all talk and very little action, despite several decades of meetings and promises. None of it has amounted to much more than some buzzwords and favorable press releases. The Paris Accords, now five years old, have been largely ineffective both in getting countries to actually change behaviors and in even getting them to make meaningful promises to do so. So skepticism is warranted any time a world leader says that they are finally going to address climate change.

But this year, it feels like there was at least a little more intention put behind the promises. The United Nations hosted its 26th climate change conference, and while it was a deeply flawed event in the middle of a pandemic, it did result in some meaningful pledges. 105 countries signed onto a pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% before the end of the decade. Another pledge, also signed by more than 100 nations, promises to reverse the trend of deforestation and put new emphasis on conserving essential land and ecosystems. More than 40 countries joined an agreement to end the use of coal for energy production, and 20 countries and counting have signed up to a pledge that would end overseas investment in fossil fuel projects.

All of that isn’t enough to save us from the worst-case scenarios of climate change, but it gets us closer to being on track. Importantly, some of the biggest polluters on the planet are seemingly starting to get on board. The U.S. is in the process of passing the biggest (and first) spending bill meant to address climate change. President Biden has committed the country to reducing carbon emissions by 50% before 2030, and while it isn’t enough, it’s certainly a step in the right direction and puts the U.S. on a path that it has never truly bothered to pursue in the past.

President Biden speaks at COP26, the United Nations climate conference, in November in Glasgow, Scotland.

Photo by EVAN VUCCI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Other countries at the top of the polluter list are also starting to make progress. In the lead-up to the U.N. climate summit, China announced a pledge to achieve carbon-neutral status by 2060. The country is still trailing the world in its commitments, but it is starting to make progress, ending funding for coal plants abroad and embracing clean energy solutions. There’s a lot of work to be done, as China is still heavily reliant on coal power itself and seems to be uninterested in changing that in the short term. But it’s coming to the table and coming to terms with reality. That’s an improvement.

India also seemed to signal that it is ready to get serious on climate change, promising to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. Even Russia, which has not even pretended to play ball on the climate crisis in the past (and still is engaging in obnoxiously self-defeating behavior, like vetoing a U.N. resolution that would recognize climate change as a security threat), is at least starting to come to the table. People within the Kremlin who believe climate change is real are starting to get more power, and the U.S. and Russia even managed to hold meetings to discuss plans to address the crisis despite an otherwise icy relationship.

The world has waited too long to get to this point, but better late than never might be enough to keep Earth inhabitable. It’s just a matter of finally making good on all that talk, because saying the right thing will only get us so far.

Follow the money

The first sign of true progress is not necessarily policy or public opinion or expertise — it’s where the money goes. And in 2021, fossil fuel’s seemingly endless money spout started to slow its flow. That’s because increasingly, big money backers are starting to move their piles of cash elsewhere. Burning fossil fuels is what got us into this mess, and if we have any chance of getting out, we’re going to have to stop — and stopping isn’t great business. So Wall Street is starting to look elsewhere.

Do we live in a capitalist hellscape wherein something has to make money in order for us to embrace it? Yes. But at least we’re finally trending in the right direction.

Money managers like BlackRock, Fidelity, and Vanguard all pledged to taper off their investments in fossil fuels in the coming years. ABP, the largest pension fund in Europe, announced a plan in October to immediately drop investments in fossil fuel companies, pulling out more than $17 billion in assets from firms that exploit the land and burn oil and gas. Harvard University similarly announced this year that it would divest from any fossil fuel holdings in its massive $42 billion endowment — a trend that has made its way to other universities as well, including Columbia, Cambridge, and Georgetown.

Even within fossil fuel companies, sentiment is shifting. Back in June, ExxonMobil watched one of its important board seats slip into the hands of an activist hedge fund — the third such spot that has gone to a group calling for the second-largest oil company in the world to reduce its carbon emissions. The strategy that worked at Exxon is starting to spread, too: Activists are targeting companies like Chevron, Shell, and BP with the plan of snagging board seats and exerting influence over the companies that otherwise seem content to literally watch the world burn.

Don’t get it twisted: There are still plenty of people heavily invested in fossil fuels and willing to squeeze every last ounce of profitability out of it, planet be damned. But wind, solar, and clean energy solutions are increasingly popular because they are increasingly affordable and, in turn, profitable. Do we live in a capitalist hellscape wherein something has to make money in order for us to embrace it? Yes. But at least we’re finally trending in the right direction.

The progress of 2021 doesn't negate the complete and utter failure to act for decades prior — and promises should not be confused for actual action. We have a long way to go, and the effects of climate change are already all around us. It’s great that we’re starting to see a change in attitude toward this crisis, but we’re still doing too little and we’re pretty late in the game for half-measures. Tune in to 2022 to see if we do any better.