The year started with Australia’s massive wildfires, and now 2020 is vying for the title of hottest year on record.
It was also the year with the most hurricanes. Meteorologists had to dig deep into the Greek alphabet to name them all.
Among all of the disheartening news about the climate in 2020, there were some bright spots, says Mark Fischetti, senior editor at Scientific American, who tracks the top climate change stories each year.
Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election has huge climate implications, Fischetti says. Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement and strengthen some of the environmental rules undone during the Trump administration.
Fischetti says emissions should be dropping slightly because coal plants are closing and natural gas has taken over a larger share of the energy market. But regulatory rollbacks by the Trump administration have held back progress.
“The rollbacks could add up to the equivalent of 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere that wouldn't have been added had those regulations not been rolled back,” he says. “So the Biden administration can do a lot to really change that math.”
One rollback that the Biden administration could quickly reinstate is transportation mileage standards, Fischetti says.
“That would greatly cut emissions from transportation,” he says. “And then the Clean Power Plan, which was so political for so long during Trump's era, that basically was stopped. So if it got put back into place, that would tighten up emissions from power plants across the country.”
Speaking of transportation, coronavirus shutdowns spurred a 7% drop in global greenhouse gas emissions, mostly due to the fact that fewer people were driving and flying, Fischetti says. This decline could pave the way for shifting the world away from fossil fuels.
“It shows you that a fairly sizable chunk of emissions comes from transportation,” he says. “We knew that, but changing transportation could have a big difference alone.”
While he acknowledges climate change is a dire threat to human existence, Fischetti says he’s hopeful because there are concrete actions the government can take, such as tightening environmental regulations, stopping methane leaks and improving environmental justice.
“You can be defeatist about this,” he says, “but we all live here, so let's do something about it.”
Other Top Climate Stories Of 2020
Record-breaking number of hurricanes highlights the need to improve environmental justice
“For a long time, scientists were saying, 'Well, warmer atmosphere, more moisture in the atmosphere will make hurricanes stronger. It wouldn't necessarily create more storms per year.' But that's really changing, and this past year has been ... a lot of records set. So there is a change in thinking that maybe it also does mean more storms, so, of course, stronger storms and more storms means just that much more damage.”
“If we think about various recent events, the hardest hit communities were the poorest communities. Sea level rise is an issue that really is threatening a number of low-lying areas and coastal areas and islands where you've got many Indigenous people living. In Alaska, on the coast, there's a really odd thing happening where sea ice is disappearing. And so, first of all, it makes hunting of whales and other animals much more difficult, but there are waves that are now breaking onto the shore where there never were waves before. And it's literally like barreling into the Indigenous towns along the shoreline.
“So there's a lot of these effects, certainly in the cities, that's gotten a lot of attention too this year. So if you're going to clean up sources of emissions and sources of pollution in general, maybe start in the places where it's needed most and where the people who live there need help to make these changes happen.”
Destructive wildfires in Australia and the U.S.
“It's hard to look the other way. Australia [had] a terrible year. In California, the amount of acres burned this year was twice the previous record in the state. There's more wildfires in Alaska and the high Arctic even, which is previously sort of unheard of. And it's a number of effects that are combining to cause this warmer temperature, but more importantly, for forest fires, drier soil. And it means snow melts earlier, so the number of weeks where the soil is dry is longer and all these things add up to more chances for fire.”
Stopping methane leaks in the oil, gas and coal infrastructure
“Carbon dioxide is what everybody is familiar with as a greenhouse gas. Methane's sort of the next biggest culprit, but it's increasing quite quickly. And most of it comes from agriculture and notably the gas and oil industry. So methane is the main component of natural gas and natural gas is rising, as we said earlier, so there's more and more leaking and you can stop it. The natural sources, there's not a lot you can do about it, but leaks in pipelines and production facilities you can do something about, and it really could actually save the companies money because they're wasting that gas in essence.”
Links between climate change and the pandemic
“So there's some really interesting linkages here. Deforestation, what you're doing in part is you're flushing out the animals that normally live there and are happy to just stay there. So bats are a carrier of lots of these kinds of pathogens, and they're getting flushed out of their native habitat by us cutting down the forest, essentially. And that's a big factor within climate change too. The more you slash and burn, the less trees there are to absorb carbon dioxide and the more emissions you create. So as a source of potential pandemics, we raise the stakes there.
“And then completely on the other end of this, in inner cities, diesel fuel emissions carry small particles, and it's been shown they can actually carry virus particles a fair distance, a lot more than the six feet that we always hear about. So if you think about an inner city where diesel emissions are wafting into the apartments and all that, and if there's coronavirus around it, potentially carrying coronavirus. So all these things are interconnected in some pretty surprising ways.”
Changing oceans and melting glaciers
“The oceans are maybe warming a little, but with a lot of glaciers melting and ice sheets melting, especially in Greenland, that area, there's more freshwater that enters the ocean, so it changes the level of salt. So if the temperature changes a little, the salt level changes a little, the fisheries, they move, they want to go where their conditions are prime for them and also where their food sources go, which has a lot of implications for people who depend on local fisheries for their own sustenance.”
This segment aired on December 25, 2020.