For those of us who lived through it, 2020 will forever be remembered as the year that just wouldn't end, the year where it felt like everything bad happened all at once. But it will hopefully also be looked back on by future historians as a turning point in our efforts to address climate change. During a year in which the devastating effects of our changing atmosphere became impossible to ignore, countries and corporations in 2020 seemed to recognize more than ever before that urgent action is necessary.
It will be a few years, or decades, before we know if things really did change for the better in 2020, but regardless of what this year’s ultimate legacy may be, a lot has happened over the last 12 months in the environmental and climate change arenas. This is Mic’s guide to the most important of those happenings.
Wildfires run rampant in Australia and California
Though they started in 2019, Australia’s devastating bush fires raged well into 2020. When the flames finally started to die down in March, the country had lost more than 46 million acres of land, about 6,000 buildings including nearly 3,000 homes, and the lives of 34 people. The fires were particularly damaging to Australia's wildlife. Experts believe as many as one billion animals died in the flames, and many others lost access to the habitats they call home. The fires, exacerbated by record-setting heat plaguing the nation and science-denying politicians who ignored the warning signs, amounted to the worst year for Australia's environment in more than a century.
While it wasn't the literal embers from Australia's fires that carried over to California, it sure felt like a continuation of those destructive flames when the West Coast of the United States was on fire through the summer of 2020. In August, California started experiencing one of its worst wildfire seasons on record. Nearly 10,000 individual fires, including a massive one caused by the use of a pyrotechnic at a gender reveal party, ended up destroying more than four million acres of land. The fires spread into neighboring states, expanding the destruction and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. While pinning the particularly horrific wildfire season on a single cause is difficult, there's little doubt that climate change made matters much worse, and we should likely expect more calamitous events to come.
Joe Biden elected president on climate-forward agenda
After four years of Donald Trump's seeming disdain for experts and destructive tendencies that left the Environmental Protection Agency in shambles and infused with anti-science impulses, a majority of Americans decided it was time to right the ship. Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, and while he won't take office until 2021, his victory in 2020 was enough to warrant a sigh of relief for many. Biden ran with climate change as one of his top priorities, including a $2 trillion plan to get the US to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a strong history on the issue. He'll have plenty of work ahead of him, as the previous administration left a mess of environmental policy, but with promises to create new positions to address climate change, a climate-focused cabinet, and a slew of executive tools at his disposal, the Biden administration could mark the moment that the US finally gets serious about climate change.
Trump rushes to open up ANWR
After losing the election, Trump has made a point to do as much damage as possible before getting kicked to the curb. Earlier this year, his administration finalized a rule that would allow the federal government to lease land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the largest national wildlife refuge in the country, for oil drilling. To make it happen, Trump is rushing the auction process to try to sell off the land as quickly as possible, just to get the deals on the books before he leaves office. It's one of a number of rush jobs that Trump is trying to push through, as if he's got to fit as many environmental disasters in as possible before January 20, 2021.
Climate pledges get serious
Climate change is real and caused by human activity. Thus far, too much of the emphasis on addressing it has been placed on individuals when the biggest polluters are just a handful of corporations and industrious countries. 2020 is the year that those most responsible for the emissions that are warming the planet finally promised to change their ways. China, the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, pledged that it would reach net-zero emissions by 2060. It was joined by gas and oil giants like BP, which claims it will reach net-zero status by 2050. Other companies that present as more climate-conscious, like Microsoft, are making plans to remove their entire history of carbon emissions. Even the US appears to be back on board with addressing the issue, with the incoming Biden administration promising to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement. We just have to hope it isn't too little, too late.
US leaves Paris Agreement (but will be right back)
2020 marked the five-year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, but the US did not attend the reunion. Under the Trump administration, the US left the accord. It was a promise that Trump made on the campaign trail, set in motion as soon as he took office, and finally made good on this year. Leaving the global agreement didn't tank the effort entirely, though the Paris Climate Agreement has produced considerably less ambitious efforts than are needed. But President-elect Biden has promised to bring the US back into the fold and recommit to the accord, with the goal of leading a much more aggressive effort that other nations will hopefully follow.
Coronavirus-related emissions reductions
When the coronavirus pandemic sent much of the world into lockdowns, emissions dropped dramatically. We started to see the skies and water clear up and it seemed as though we might actually put a big enough dent in our emissions to make a difference. That dream was short-lived, as emissions started to skyrocket back to pre-pandemic levels as soon as the world started turning again. The response to the pandemic is not necessarily a blueprint for addressing climate change, but it does show how collective action can make a significant difference. Now we've just got to figure out how to make that action stick.
Another hottest year on record
If it seems like every year is the hottest year in history, that’s because it is. The planet keeps getting warmer, and as a result, we keep setting new records for heat. 2020 is unlikely to be an exception to the rule. Experts indicate that the year is nearly tied for the mark of hottest year in the record books and is likely to earn the title by year's end. This should come as little surprise following the hottest decade in our recorded history and expectations that extreme heat will continue to get worse throughout this century.
Clean energy gains momentum
While the Trump administration has done its damnedest to prop up coal and oil, 2020 has been a pretty momentous year for renewable energy alternatives. For the first time ever, clean energy sources like wind and solar surpassed coal as an energy source in the US, even as Trump held back funding and tried to hide studies supporting clean innovations. Add to that the fact that clean energy has become cheaper and more sustainable than some dirty-burning fuels and has made significant strides in countries like the UK, and it looks like the world finally may be embracing renewable energy in a meaningful way.
Arctic and Antarctic ice disappearing at an alarming rate
Much of the planet is warming, and the Arctic is no exception. The polar region known for its thick layers of sea ice has been feeling the effects of climate change, and we started to learn just how bad it is getting this year. Researchers discovered that the Arctic is warmer than it has been at any point in the last three million years. That perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise, as even the coldest spot on the planet started to feel the heat this year, but the effects are potentially devastating. Ice around the planet is melting at what experts have called a "mind-blowing" rate, which could expose the planet to all sorts of harmful effects, from rising oceans to exposure to previously frozen viruses and diseases.
Public opinion polls showing people are finally starting to care about climate crisis
If there is one good thing to come out of all the environmental disasters that have plagued the planet throughout 2020 and the years prior, it's the fact that the general public finally seems to be prioritizing the planet. This year saw more support for truly taking action to address climate change. Polling found that two-thirds of Americans believe the government is doing too little to address the climate crisis and nearly three in four believe that climate change is happening. That includes newfound support from young Republicans, who are bucking the party and pushing for action on climate change. It appears environmental disasters are one issue that can cut through the partisan bullshit that has clouded the climate conversation for decades, as many are faced to look toward an ugly future if no action is taken.