The good, the bad and the ugly of climate change in 2021 — but it’s not too late to act

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In the climate battle, the year 2021 has produced much that is good, including advances in science, policy and activism. It’s seen much that is bad, including devastating climate impacts. The year has also been darkened by the shadow of the ugly truth that self-amplifying feedbacks are pushing the climate toward a hothouse Earth that threatens civilization.

The good

Advances in science. This year, observations of weather extremes and other indicators of change in the climate and ecological systems are painting a more accurate picture of where we are, where we’re going, how fast we’ll likely get there and what the best strategies are to slow warming in time to prevent catastrophe.

Several scientific findings stand out. First, self-amplifying feedbacks are being observed, leading to growing appreciation for the existential risk they pose. This includes the risk of adding the warming equivalent of one trillion tons of carbon dioxide by losing the remaining Arctic summer sea ice for the sunlit months, which currently is reflecting an equivalent amount of incoming solar radiation safely back to space.

The second conclusion that stands out is that every increment of warming brings us closer to crossing irreversible tipping points, including committed melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and likely the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, making this the “do-or-die decade” to slow warming and stay as close as possible to the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Third is that cutting carbon dioxide by shifting from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, while avoiding significant warming later this century, will result in only modest avoided warming by 2050. This is because burning less coal and diesel also reduces emissions of reflective aerosols, which are currently masking about 0.5 Celsius of warming from accumulating greenhouse gases. 

Fourth is that cutting non-carbon dioxide climate pollutants — especially the super climate pollutants methane, hydrofluorocarbons, black carbon soot and tropospheric ozone — is critical for slowing warming in the near term over the next couple of decades.

But even with fast cuts to both carbon dioxide and the non-carbon dioxide pollutants, it now appears that we will not be able to slow warming enough to avoid impacts like those we’ve been experiencing this year, let alone even more damaging impacts in the future.

Climate restoration. This year saw a growing focus on climate restoration, where we do more than slow and ultimately stop emissions of climate pollutants. This includes protecting and expanding forest lands, wetlands, mangrove and kelp forests, grasslands, as well as other carbon sinks. It includes learning how to protect and restore the reflective Arctic sea ice, as well as learning how to remove carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere. It also includes learning about the safety and efficacy of solar geoengineering to enhance cooling.

Expanding climate activism. The Youth Movement brought both energy and courage to climate policy, and campaigns like the one promoting the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty started gaining traction, with the unlikely, but most welcome support from the International Energy Agency.  Climate litigation also has expanded into a major force demanding greater climate ambition from governments and corporations.

Human rights and environmental lawyers have been stepping up to promote climate justice and help avoid planetary malpractice, including calling for the new crime of ecocide, just as courageous lawyers of the past originated the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”

A renewed call for adequate climate finance. This year the International Monetary Fund entered the climate fight, with a commitment at the G20 to establish a Resilience and Sustainability Trust to provide affordable long-term finance to help low-income countries cope with the risks of pandemics and climate change. This fund is projected to start at about $30 billion before growing to more than $50 billion. (To be effective, the fund will need to dedicate a portion to cutting methane and other short-lived super climate pollutants to slow climate-change impacts fast enough to give us time to adapt.)

Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados called for an even larger climate fund of $500 billion a year in Special Drawing Rights for the next 20 years to help developing countries do their share to avoid the “death sentence” of exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Other progress on finance included national and sub-national commitments to scale up clean power generation and energy efficiency while ending new permitting for unabated coal power and phasing out new oil and gas production. The private financial sector, representing $130 trillion in combined assets of more than 450 banks, insurers and other investors, also made  promising climate pledges to pursue net-zero emissions goals.

New climate architecture. This year saw a realignment of the underlying architecture for climate policy. This includes acknowledging that the climate emergency is here today; that 1.5 degrees Celsius (and not 2 degrees) is the target threshold temperature to limit the risk of runaway warming; that warming must be slowed this “decisive decade,” making “2030 the new 2050”; and that cutting non-carbon dioxide climate pollutants, including methane, is critical for slowing warming in the near term.

At the UN climate summit COP26 in November, over 100 countries joined the Global Methane Pledge, committing to cut global methane emissions by at least 30 percent below 2020 levels this decade. If achieved, and combined with rapid decarbonization, such reductions would put the world on a pathway consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. A second pledge by 141 countries focused on stopping and reversing forest loss this decade, supported with $18 billion in funding, including $1.7 billion dedicated to support indigenous peoples. 

These positive developments were further supported when the United States and China announced their commitment to working together under this new architecture with the Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s.

Moving climate policy to the leader level is another part of the new architecture. COP26 brought together 120 heads of state and government, following the two leaders’ summits that President Biden organized in April and September for the Major Economies Forum.

The bad 

The devastation from extreme weather this year — “virtually impossible” without human-caused warming — represents the bad. Indeed it was very bad, with floods in Western Europe and China and across the United States, extreme heat coupled with wildfires and drought in the western U.S. and Canada and Greece, as well as in Siberia, along with a deadly deep freeze in Texas in February. In the first nine months of 2021 in the United States alone, there were 18 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events, not including the historic December tornados that ripped through Kentucky and the Midwest.

The ugly 

The ugly shadow is the growing evidence that feedbacks in the climate system are likely fueling many of these climate disasters. The Arctic is warming a staggering four times faster than the global average, weakening the jet stream, and resulting in slower moving weather systems that exacerbate extremes. Changes in the Arctic are driving wildfires in the western U.S., as well as record-setting heatwaves and the deadly freeze in Texas. These climate disasters are evidence that “If we lose the Arctic, we lose the whole world,” as emphasized by Finnish President Sauli Niiniströ. 

Additional worrying signs include the slowing of the ocean’s great heat conveyer belt, the Atlantic overturning circulation, and the surprisingly rapid disintegration of the “doomsday” Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. The collapse of the Thwaites Glacier could raise see levels by over two feet alone, and up to 10 feet if it takes other glaciers with it. This would be on top of the sea-level rise from the Greenland Ice Sheet, where in August scientists recorded rain at its summit for the first time, and which is showing signs of reaching a tipping point toward irreversible melting.

As we mourn the loss of ecologist Thomas E. Lovejoy, we should heed his and Carlos Nobre’s warning that the Amazon rainforest is also nearing a tipping point under the combined assaults of clear-cutting, fires and global warming.

The ugliest fact and the greatest danger is that these feedbacks and tipping points influence one another, raising the risk of a global cascade that pushes the climate into conditions never before experienced by human civilization.

Conclusion: Time to look up

Our modern civilization has evolved during a remarkably stable climate over the past 6,000 years. But, we are on the verge of destroying it, largely for the greed of a few and the doubt and confusion they’ve sown for half a century, the indifference of many and the belief of a few that technology ultimately will save us by restoring the planet in time to prevent the worst. This sums up the current Netflix movie, “Don’t Look Up”, which plays as an apocalyptic satire until the end when it breaks your heart.

The past year saw remarkable climate progress, but far from enough to avoid the worst impacts, including Hothouse Earth where we lose control of the climate system and put civilization at risk. While the window is closing, it’s not too late to find the courage to look up and become climate activists and demand more aggressive climate solutions as though our lives depend upon it.

Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) in Washington, D.C. and Paris, as well as an adjunct professor, University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also co-author of “Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!: The Ozone Treaty’s Urgent Lessons for Speeding Up Climate Action.

 

Gabrielle Dreyfus, Ph.D., is chief scientist at IGSD and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. 

Tags Climate change COP26 Durwood Zaelke Environment extreme weather Fossil fuels Gabrielle Dreyfus Global warming IPCC Joe Biden Sustainability

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