A brief history of 2021’s geopolitics, brutal weather, and alarming discoveries
Firefighter Elroy Valadez battles the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe, California, on September 2, 2021.Jae C. Hong/AP
By: Bibi Van Der Zee/The Guardian
The year began with a counting up of the damage after the catastrophic extreme weather events of 2020, from fires to floods. Looking at the US alone, California more than doubled its previous annual wildfire record with more than 4.1 million acres burned and NASA concluded that 2020 had been the joint hottest year on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the UK Met Office put it in close second to 2016.
And 2021—the year that would see the crucial UN climate summit held in Glasgow in November—was not showing signs of being much better. The continent of Africa had its warmest January on record, while torrential rains fell in Malaysia, leading to the evacuation of 50,000 people and the death of at least six. Meanwhile in Turkey there were fears that Istanbul would run out of water following the most severe drought in a decade.
And in the UK, a plan to reintroduce white-tailed eagles to the east of the country was, unusually, led by farmers, who said they wanted to “inspire people with nature and drive wider nature recovery.”
In my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis and we can’t wait any longer. We see it with our own eyes, we feel it, we know it in our bones, and it’s time to act. —Joe Biden
The internationally renowned scientist James Hansen waded into the UK’s row over plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria, saying it showed “contemptuous disregard for the future of young people.” A few days earlier, nine activists had announced that they were in a tunnel under London’s Euston station, dug secretly beneath a tent, in order to protest against the high-speed rail link the UK government was in the process of building.
A historic wave of winter weather hit the eastern US and Texas, with nearly 10 million people without power at the storm’s peak, and millions without water after pipes burst; it was later assessed to have been the most costly winter storm event on record.
New York was lit up by news that dolphins had come to play in the East River—validation of a long-term clean-up of the river which had cost the city $45 million. Further north, in the Midway Atoll wildlife refuge in the North Pacific, the “oldest wild bird in history,” 70-year-old Wisdom the Laysan albatross, hatched another chick. Banded by biologist Chandler Robbins in 1956, Wisdom has outlived a number of partners (albatrosses normally mate for life).
On the other side of the planet, Australia was being hit by horrendous floods, with thousands forced to flee rising waters in New South Wales, and the insurance industry facing millions of dollars in claims. The same region, meanwhile, was also battling a mouse plague, with horrifying footage showing the ground moving as the rodents took over.
In the US, Deb Haaland was confirmed as the first ever indigenous cabinet secretary, as she took over the environment department. The huge surge in renewable energy around the world continued, with China announcing that it had built wind farms with a staggering total capacity of almost 100 GW in 2020—an increase of nearly 60 percent on 2019. But Climate Action 100, launching the first ever benchmark for tracking corporate progress on climate change, found that only a handful of the big polluters were taking serious action.
A landmark legal decision by the German supreme constitutional court found that the government’s climate protection measures were insufficient to protect future generations. The government promised it would take action on what one of the young activists who had brought the case called “a huge win for the climate movement.” In the UK meanwhile, the coroner who oversaw the sad case of a young girl, Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died after an asthma attack in 2013, published a report which called for the lowering of legally binding maximum levels of particulate air pollution in the UK.
And in the US, a two-day summit on climate change was wound up with promises on all sides, including one from the US to cut its greenhouse gases by 50-52 percent by 2030. The country also pledged to double financial aid to help other countries with their targets. “Is it enough? No,” said John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, who had earlier struck a deal to cooperate with China on climate change. “But it’s the best we can do today and proves we can start to move.”
The shifts came against the background of a troubling development however, as scientists concluded that the warm Atlantic current linked to severe and abrupt changes in the climate in the past was now at its weakest in at least 1,600 years. The current is known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.
Huge sandstorms in China turned the skies over Beijing yellow for several days, while Cyclone Seroja brought heavy rain and strong winds to Western Australia, with some locations seeing their highest ever daily rainfall.
A Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45 percent by the end of 2030 in an unprecedented ruling that will have huge implications for the energy industry and other polluting multinationals. The decision came just as the International Energy Agency published Net Zero by 2050, a landmark report which stated that exploitation and development of new oil and gas fields would have to stop this year, and no new coal-fired power stations could be built if the world wanted to stay within safe limits of global heating and meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
Meanwhile in Australia the federal court found that the environment minister, Sussan Ley, had a duty of care to protect young people from the climate crisis, in what lawyers said was “the first time in the world” such a duty of care had been recognized.
In France, the minister for ecological transition delighted and appalled people in equal measure with the announcement that the new climate law would take meat off the menu once a week in schools.
Turkey was hit by “sea snot”—a blanket of mucus-like stuff that was silting up the coasts, created as a result of warm temperatures and agricultural run-off that encouraged phytoplankton to grow. But in California, after a short and late rainy season, the governor was declaring an impending drought emergency in 41 of 58 counties.
One of the most extraordinary and powerful heatwaves ever experienced by North America hit the west coast in June and did not go away. Caused by what meteorologists called a “dome of high pressure,” the heatwave extended from California—worsening the drought even as the first wildfires of the season began—all the way up to Canada, where temperatures rose up to 121.3 F, shattering all previous records. “This is the beginning of a permanent emergency,” the governor of Washington state said.
Other parts of the world also saw scorching temperatures. Both Europe and Asia had their second warmest Junes on record, while Africa and New Zealand had the warmest June ever recorded.
But efforts to fight back continued too. Poland announced it would shut down Bełchatów, Europe’s most polluting power plant (although only in 2036). The City of London said it would be creating a heat network and digging boreholes for one of the UK’s largest low-carbon heating systems.
Sri Lanka braced itself for disaster after the MV X-Press Pearl, a ship carrying toxic chemicals, caught fire off the coast and sank. Meanwhile China was fixating on a herd of elephants that had trekked 300 miles into the city of Kunming.
The average global surface temperature for July was the hottest since records began in 1880, with Death Valley in California registering 130 F.
As the US heatwaves and droughts worsened, India, China and Europe were being hit by catastrophic floods. Torrential downpours on India’s west coast led to 115 deaths, while Henan province in China saw a year’s worth of rain—604 mm—in a single day. Horrifying videos showed the waters rising in subways, while hundreds of thousands were forced to evacuate. And in Germany rows broke out when it emerged that a flood early warning system had failed to work, after torrents of rainwater tore through villages and towns, leaving more than a hundred people dead.
Meanwhile the Australian government continued to fight attempts to have the Great Barrier Reef declared “in danger,” with local politicians saying they feared for the impact the declaration would have on jobs. In the UK, the water company Southern Water was fined a record £90 million (about $121 million) after a six-year investigation found evidence that it had deliberately poured untreated sewage into the sea in order to avoid the cost of upgrading infrastructure.
And, to top off a gloomy month for the planet, new data showed that the melting of Greenland was surging, with the amount of ice vanishing in a single day enough to cover the whole of Florida in 5 cm of water, according to researchers.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered its starkest warning to the world yet, concluding that climate change was unequivocally caused by human activities, and warning that some of the impacts were now inevitable and “irreversible”.
As the heat continued, wildfires broke out in the Mediterranean, where the Greek prime minister described them as the country’s “greatest ecological disaster in decades,” and across more than 9 million hectares of forests in Siberia.
Meanwhile floods and landslides hit Japan, where more than a million people were evacuated from their homes, and also Turkey, Colombia, and Tennessee in the US, where a record-breaking deluge swept through homes and roads. Rain fell on the highest point of the Greenland ice sheet for the first time on record.
A Swedish company shipped the world’s first customer delivery of “green steel”—made without using coal—as solar power outstripped coal in Australia for the first time when, for a fleeting moment, more electricity was generated by solar power.
In the UK, Extinction Rebellion swung back into action, blocking London Bridge and Oxford Circus, pouring red paint in entrances at the City of London and locking on outside the Science Museum over its sponsorship deal with the oil giant Shell.
“Blah blah blah” was what Greta Thunberg called the promises from global leaders around the world to tackle climate change, pointing out that carbon emissions were still on track to rise 16 percent by 2030. As Cop26 drew nearer, and following the summer of record-breaking fires, heatwaves and floods, politicians everywhere were under increasing pressure to improve their offers. A US/EU deal to reduce methane emissions felt like a good contribution.
A new protest movement launched in the UK, as Insulate Britain demonstrators began sitting on motorways to demand climate action in the form of insulation for the country’s housing stock. In Scotland, as preparations sped up, one man built an ark on a hillside, telling the planning committee when it asked if it was a permanent structure: “It’s not permanent in the same way that humanity won’t be if we don’t take action on the climate.
In a painful irony, new data revealed that the wildfires were themselves releasing record-breaking amounts of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, an energy crisis was breaking across the world, with sky-high gas prices in Europe and pressure on electricity and coal supplies in China.
China hosted the Kunming conference on biodiversity and announced a $233 million fund to protect biodiversity in developing countries.
With just days to go before Cop26, Australia, one of the countries most notorious for holding out against climate action, published its plan for how it would reduce carbon emissions, but it was called “a scam” containing no detail and no modeling.
Elsewhere, however, signs of change were palpable, with a series of plans announced at the Middle East Green Initiative Summit, led by the United Arab Emirates which will be hosting Cop28 in two years’ time.
A Tesla became the first ever battery-powered car to top Europe’s sales chart. And in the UK, the government was forced by a near rebellion to U-turn and place a duty on water companies to reduce sewage discharges.
We shall take the development of an ecological civilisation as our guide to coordinate the relationship between man and nature. —Xi Jinping
In the US, one senator gained global notoriety: Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, was holding out against his own party for huge cuts to President Biden’s climate change plans. For a brief moment, it looked as if Biden would have to go to Cop26 with zero legislative progress at home.
Cop26 was under way at last, after two years of pandemic, delays, worries, criticisms and negotiations. World leaders gathered for the first two days and were exhorted by David Attenborough to be “motivated by hope rather than fear.” Biden would at least see his infrastructure bill passed, but the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, put a dampener on events by making his speech and then hopping into a private jet to make the short journey to London.
The first week saw an onslaught of deals on methane, deforestation, coal, the ambition to stick to 1.5 C of warming and finance, with hundreds of the world’s biggest banks and pension funds with assets worth $130 trillion committing themselves to limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
By the end of the second week of hard negotiation, the summit’s president, Alok Sharma, had cajoled countries into a deal including a ratchet mechanism that asked every country to upgrade its emission reduction plans in time for the next Cop in Egypt in a year’s time, and each year thereafter. However, many were dismayed that the deal did not include the loss and damage facility that most of the world had asked for, to help developing countries in particular pay for the impacts of the climate crisis already being felt.
Beyond the summit, rain storms hit British Columbia in Canada, earlier battered by the summer’s heatwaves, broke up roads and led to a state of emergency.
Out in the oceans one of the rarest animals in the world was glimpsed: the mythical white sperm whale, seen surfacing for a moment, from the waters off Jamaica.
The World Meteorological Organization announced in the middle of the month that it had recognized a new Arctic temperature record: The summer of 2020 had seen the Russian town of Verkhoyansk hit with an all-time high of 100.4 F.
Floods swept Queensland, Australia, with up to 180mm of rain falling in 24 hours in some parts of the state. The UK was hit by Storm Arwen and Storm Barra. Heavy rains fell in Iraq, leading to serious flooding and displacement. And tornadoes ripped through North America, with at least 70 deaths in Kentucky in what was described as the “most devastating tornado event” in the state’s history, only to be followed, by the end of the month, by record-breaking temperatures and snowfall.
EO Wilson, who died on December 26, had warned many times that humans could not continue to use the land and resources of the planet in the way they did. The biologist was caught up in controversies at times during his career. Nevertheless, his warning that “we live in a delusional state” if we do not understand the burden that the western way of life imposes on Earth, rings true even now.
If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos. —EO Wilson