Speaker 1: Just like we need to be a unified nation in response to COVID-19, we need a unified national response to climate change. We need to meet the moment with the urgency demands that we would during any national emergency.
Speaker 2: An extreme year for hurricanes, wildfires, and heatwaves comes to an end.
Speaker 3: Eta is the 28th name storm of the season. Zeta was 2005.
Speaker 4: We could hear everything hitting the house and it was literally mourning and cracking back and forth.
Speaker 5: I said, "Jack, are the four of us going to die in this house?" See, that’s how high the water got.
Speaker 6: Outside my house, I have 18 inches of water all the way around my house.
Speaker 7: The climate is not what it used to be. I do not remember this amount of dryness in this amount of fuel.
Speaker 1: 4 million now, acres have been burned, 31 people have lost their lives, close to 9,000 structures now have been destroyed.
Speaker 5: I just about fell sideways, I could not believe the magnitude of the fire and how quickly it had grown out of control. This is insane.
Speaker 4: You can't really go anywhere and now [unintelligible 00:01:18] but you can go home.
Speaker 8: In central Iowa, we recorded some wind gusts 70, 75 miles per hour.
Speaker 9: Think about entire counties that have been taken out. Over half of our crops have been devastated. About $4 billion worth of damage.
Speaker 8: The intensity of this one sets it apart. It was definitely a stronger direction.
Speaker 5: I hurry up and I push the door back open, and then this giant water just sticking out of the wall.
Speaker 10: We’re expecting up to 30 inches of rain in portions of Honduras, Northern Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Southern Belize. That type of rainfall can lead to life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.
Speaker 11: We can expect to see further intensification of these extreme wildfire weather conditions.
Speaker 12: Something's happened to the plumbing of the world, climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this.
Callie Crossley: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Callie Crossley, host and commentator for GBH Radio and TV in Boston. I'm in for Tanzina Vega this week. The pandemic may have consumed the majority of our attention this year, but it was not our only global crisis. Climate change in 2020 has led to some of the worst environmental disasters in history. There have been 41 weather disasters this year that have caused billions of dollars in damage. A record 18 of these took place in the US, with a year of historic wildfires, Atlantic hurricanes, and other severe weather fueled by climate change.
Today, let's start with a look at the year in climate stories, what stands out, what we learned from a year when the climate crisis coincided with the coronavirus, and how we can look ahead into 2021. Joining me now is Umair Irfan, a staff writer at Vox covering climate change and science. Umair, thanks for being here.
Umair Irfan: Thanks for having me, Callie.
Callie: Jason Smerdon a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Jason, thank you for joining me.
Jason Smerdon: Hi Callie, thanks for having me.
Callie: Jason, taking 2020, as a whole, what has happened to this planet when it comes to climate change? How different do things look from a year ago globally?
Jason: Well, global warming has continued. Just because we had other crises didn't mean perpetual warming trend that we've been on now for over a century hasn't continued. As far as the big picture goes, this year is likely to be in the top three warmest years on record, it could even possibly be the warmest year on record. A lot has happened as that larger context has carried us along.
The Arctic is increasing and getting warmer much faster than the globe. We saw the second-lowest sea ice extent in the Arctic since the 1970s, that accompanied things like fires in Siberia. These global impacts as you mentioned in the intro have continued to pace in lots of different places. Closer to home, we've seen the hurricanes and the fires that you mentioned as well as the extreme weather.
Callie: Umair, 2020 has some of the worst wildfires and hurricanes as we've just mentioned on record linked of course to climate change. Can you give us a sense of how this year compared to years past?
Umair: As Jason noted, a lot of these were record-setting. In places like California, we saw a record area burn, we saw one of the largest wildfires on record. Colorado also saw one of its largest wildfires on record. The Atlantic hurricane basin this year saw its most active season on record. Generally just pushing the boundaries and not just inside the United States, we saw in other countries like you may remember at the beginning of the year, Australia saw massive wildfires. We saw massive typhoons in the Pacific Ocean and all these were basically pushing the boundaries as well of what we've seen.
It's not just that we saw a whole bunch of these things all over the world, it's that even in the individual events we saw these are outliers by just about every measure in terms of strength, intensity, and area that these events have affected.
Callie: Jason, are the links between extreme weather events and climate more clear now than they were in years past? What did 2020 do for our understanding of things like the wildfires in Australia and California, and this record-breaking hurricane season?
Jason: The links are clear but it really depends on the event. Things like the fires that we're seeing, the hurricane intensity, the strength of storms, those have real strong connections to the changing conditions due to global warming. For instance with hurricanes and Umair mentioned that in the Atlantic basin we had a record year. We had 30 named storms, that's larger than anything we've had since the 1800s.
Those storms are getting stronger. The connection between climate change and stronger hurricanes is very well resolved. Mainly the Hurricanes get their strength from the warm sea surface temperatures over which they form and travel. There's a very clear connection between increasing sea surface temperatures globally and climate change. Similarly, with fires, the warmer and drier conditions that we're seeing, for instance, in the western United States create much more favorable conditions for fire, and once fires starts, allow fires to burn hotter and over larger areas.
In California, for instance, three of the four largest fires in California history happened this year, a lot of those fires were started by things like lightning strikes, but what that random event is happening on top of is much drier conditions, much more favorable for fires. The likelihood of those fires starting as a consequence of climate change is higher, and then once they've started there's just much more fuel for them to burn over much larger areas.
Callie: Umair, let's talk about the effect of climate change on people worldwide this year especially the most vulnerable. How many people have been displaced as a result of climate change? What does the financial toll look like?
Umair: As you've noted at the top this is something that's been costing economies around the world, not just the US economy billions of dollars. They had dozens of disasters this year on their own with multibillion-dollar tolls. As a consequence of that, we do see a lot of displacement. People have been forced to relocate from the coast particularly the Gulf Coast this year in the United States. Places like Louisiana saw multiple hurricane strikes spaced weeks apart and so people had to be relocated. That's even harder now with the pandemic going on and having to maintain social distancing.
Similarly in California, there were major evacuations as well out of the paths of these massive record-breaking wildfires. You're seeing multiple compounding disasters here and that's just exacerbating. It's not just climate change, it's also the fact that we have these systemic inequalities in our society, and also things like the pandemic. When you have all these variables intersecting, that creates a much more devastating and longer-lasting toll. That's not just measured in the dollar amounts but also in the trauma and these communities that have to be relocated and can't go back to the places that were home for generations.
Callie: Well, Umair, let's turn to the link between climate and COVID. What are some of the primary ways the pandemic affected our climate this year?
Umair: In the big picture we saw a major global economic slowdown. A lot of countries started shutting down, we saw roadways clear out and a lot of industries and businesses and offices closed down. There was, especially at the outset, a major decline in energy consumption and in a lot of places also a major decline in pollution.
We saw particularly in China for instance pollution, like nitrogen oxides for instance rapidly decline in major cities as people stayed home. We saw a big dip briefly in greenhouse gas emissions globally. As businesses and offices and the economy started reopening, we actually saw a rebound where pollution and all these emissions all started spiking even higher than where they were before. Many of the gains were there but they were short-lived as far as environmental benefits.
We see now just how much of an economic dip is required to see these declines in greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, and we have a better sense of what the challenge is that lies ahead as we're dealing with climate change over the coming century and trying to zero out global emissions. We get a better sense of just how much effort is involved in terms of the whole planet trying to mitigate this problem.
Callie: Jason, how do you think the pandemic has changed human behavior with regards to the planet? Do we know?
Jason: We know for instance that we're driving less and we're flying less and that's where the big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have occurred. Umair presented this well. The one thing that I would say is that when we think about the kinds of changes that are necessary to decarbonize our economy, we would never pick a global pandemic as the option for doing that.
In terms of the parallels between what we need to do and what's happening under this pandemic, I think it only goes so far but one of the things that I think is really important to take away from this is when we think about individual action, it's hard to imagine any more advanced individual actions, than we've taken over this year as many of us have stayed home, as we've stopped flying and traveling and so on. Yet, in terms of the overall amount of emission reductions this year, we're going to come in at probably about an 8% reduction relative to 2019 levels. That's with a massive, essentially individual amount of actions that we've all taken, that you might list these things that we need to do to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
There's still a lot of things that are fundamentally tied to fossil fuels. We were still at home using our computers, heating our homes, that's all tied to, in many cases, electricity production, which is dependent on fossil fuels in a significant way. Industry still continued in different ways, which is still very dependent on fossil fuels.
I think one of the things that it actually demonstrated is that the individual action only goes so far and what we really need to de-carbonize our economy is a much more systemic wide scale effort that still is within reach, but isn't something that necessarily happened during this pandemic. We were still using energy. Industry was still churning its wheels and de-carbonizing those sectors, is going to be much more difficult than just individual choices that we make.
Callie: Have researchers been able to learn anything new about humanity's effect on climate change because of the pandemic?
Jason: There's going to be some interesting things. There was reductions in industry, for instance and that meant that there were fewer pollutants, industrial pollutions going into the atmosphere. That's going to allow us to understand, for instance, the impact of industrial aerosols, which also are an important feature of the climate story. They reflect sunlight in certain locations, and actually cool the planet reduction in that. It's going to tell us something about how sensitive the earth is to those aerosols.
There will be interesting experiments that have been run, but the overall story here is still that greenhouse gases have been increasing, and that the march upward in those gases and the consequences climate change is something that's continued largely unabated.
Callie: Umair, where do we stand on implementing more clean energy solutions in the US in particular? I know that's something President-Elect Biden has talked about.
Umair: President-Elect Biden has set a target of zeroing out the greenhouse gas emissions from the US economy by 2050, but he has also said that he wants to decarbonize the entire electricity system by about 2035 and that's just 15 years from now, which means we really have to start making aggressive changes now.
In terms of practical things, we recently saw a big boost to that, with this spending bill that was just passed by the government and signed into law by President Trump. This is that $900 billion COVID relief bill and also this $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill because our Congress doesn't really do anything unless there's a crisis. Basically, they were able to pass a major energy legislation.
That contains some things like major investments in clean energy, research development and deployment, but also updates to this treaty called the Montreal Protocol. This is an agreement that limits pollutants that damage the ozone layer, but the same pollutants also are major heat trapping gases. This amendment to it called the Kigali Amendment basically connects the United States to phasing out these hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs by 85%, over the next 15 years. This has a huge impact on the global climate because if you were to measure the impact of these trapping gases, what we reduce would avert about half a degree of global warming by the end of the century.
Also there were some extenders for tax credits for wind and solar energy development. Beyond that, President-Elect Biden has also set out his agenda and his team, and he's picked out several leaders that have not just really good environmental bonafides on climate change, but also social justice. Say, for instance Representative Deb Haaland was selected to lead the Department of the Interior, she would be the first Native American cabinet secretary. She's also been an opponent of pipelines and drilling on public land, and also has advocated for Native American communities across the country.
Similarly, Michael Regan, who was selected from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to head the EPA, he's also had a strong focus on climate change and the environment, but also on issues of social justice and racial inequalities and things like that and how the environment affects there. We get a sense of what the priorities are going to be over the next four years.
Callie: We've talked on the show a fair amount about what the Biden administration's climate change policy could look like. We'll tweet some of those links out so folks can revisit those conversations, but thanks for that quick snapshot of his priorities as we understand them today. Jason, back to the stimulus bill, can you walk us through the significance of what some of the impact could be to reducing the impact of climate change like the reduction of hydrofluorocarbons for example?
Jason: I think hydrofluorocarbons is an important one as Umair described. This is something that we replaced chlorofluorocarbons with and that was a really important move in the context of reducing the ozone hole. As Umair mentioned, these are incredibly potent greenhouse gases. They are 100 to 1,000 times more potent than CO2 for instance. Reducing those, and really targeting those as an important greenhouse gas is important on the order of several 10th degree of warming that we'll save.
More important, and just thinking back, or looking at the larger picture here, all of the team that Umair mentioned, and the parts of the omnibus bill that focus on climate change measures, that's just an about face from what we've had over the last four years with an administration that has failed to acknowledge that climate change is even an issue. I think in terms of the seriousness with which this incoming administration is going to take climate change, and the team that they're putting together, it's just a measure of the seriousness and the urgency with which the Biden administration is going to look at climate change.
Frankly, that's what we need. We've lost a lot of time over the last four years, and we've lost a lot of time over longer periods of time, really failing to address climate change with the urgency that's necessary. It's at least encouraging that these initial signs from the Biden administration and what Congress has done through the omnibus bill, that we might actually take climate change seriously with the urgency that it deserves over the next four years of this administration.
Callie: Following up on that, Umair, are there initiatives or policies that President Trump is enacting on his way out of office that could have long lasting implications for climate change?
Umair: As Jason mentioned, just the last four years, undoing all the rollbacks on environmental regulations on things like energy efficiency, and opening public lands to mining and drilling that's just going to be a huge agenda item and it's going to take a long time just to undo those changes under a Biden administration. Right between now and when President-Elect Biden gets sworn in, President Trump has been signing new authorizations for drilling and mining on public lands, new rollbacks on some of these environmental regulations.
Recently, there was a rollback on efficiency regulations on things like showerheads, for instance. These are small things that actually add up to big benefits. Things like getting our appliances to use less electricity and do more, those have major effects that help redound to greenhouse gases. Seeing those things still being done is a little bit disheartening for our ambitions in terms of limiting greenhouse gases.
On the other hand though, because these are being done through the White House through executive authority, these are things that can be undone through the White House and executive authority. We often see this back and forth between administrations, but again, this is just going to be more things for the Biden administration to have to do in order to enact their goals and to meet their targets of zeroing out emissions from our entire economy by the middle of the century.
Callie: Jason, I know you have young kids, and I'm wondering, as a parent and climate scientists how you're feeling about this moment. Are you hopeful?
Jason: [chuckles] Let me say a few things about kids. First of all, I have a three and a five-year old, so with regard to this being a generational issue, a lot of kids who are being born today, or kids like mine, who are young, they're going to live till the end of the century, which is, in the climate change world, we often project to the end of 2100. Of course, things don't stop at that point. At this point, that's within a human lifetime, so all of these negative impacts of climate change that we often project out to the end of the century that when I started studying this seemed like it was so far away, really is within a human lifetime and is going to be the world that my kids inherit.
That is an important thing to recognize, how close that reality is. We have the power to shape it. We have the power to change it through our actions now, and that's an important thing to keep in mind.
With regard to my kids, I think I haven't started talking to them about the doom and gloom of climate change at this point, but I will tell you, what we do is we spend a lot of time outside. They're natural naturalist in so many ways. They're learning about their world. We go birding, they learn the names of plants, and so on, even in Manhattan.
On some level, you have to understand how significant and unique this planet is before you can appreciate the kinds of massive impacts that were causing it. That's what I'm trying to teach my kids at this point before we get on to the more serious stuff about what needs to be done to maintain them.
Callie: Umair, how about you? Not even as a reporter but as a human, how do you feel as we head into 2021?
Umair: Echoing what Jason said, we're seeing a pretty abrupt change from where things were over the past four years, but we also have a lot of work that's cut out for us. We have a lot of ground to make up. The United States in particular as a global leader and a major economy, a lot of countries are looking to us, and this is really a place where we have to step up. As Jason noted, we do project out to 2100, but 2050 is also where a lot of our benchmarks are.
2050 is the world that a lot of working adults are going to retire into and that's an era that a lot of us are going to see right now. It's not just for our children's future, but perhaps for our own future, for our own self-interests that we really should be starting aggressively to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions because this is a world that we are going to see play out in front of us.
Callie: Umair Irfan is a staff writer at Vox covering climate change and science, and Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.
Mary: This is Mary Young Blood in Wasilla, Alaska. Climate change has directly affected me and my family. Obviously we're in Alaska. There's a lot less snow. We have a lot more ice, and we don't have a nice fun, cold, snowy winter weather going on. I hope with Biden coming in to see aggressive moves away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources.
Julie: This is Julie from Sarasota, Florida. I sincerely hope that Biden's administration reinstates the environmental controls that Trump has let lapse or removed. I really hope that he focuses his attention on renewable and clean energy.
Jean: This is Jean calling from Seattle, Washington. Climate change was very much in evidence this past summer with hazardous levels of wildfire smoke in our city. This made the air nearly a breathable and increased the claustrophobia of pandemic time. We couldn't even safely go outside. I'm hoping that the Biden administration will be able to deemphasize our reliance on fossil fuels and support solar and wind energy.
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