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Extreme weather, climate anxiety and presidential pivot mark top 2021's climate stories

Flames burn up a tree as part of the Windy Fire in the Trail of 100 Giants grove in Sequoia National Forest, Calif., on Sept. 19, 2021. (Noah Berger/AP)
Flames burn up a tree as part of the Windy Fire in the Trail of 100 Giants grove in Sequoia National Forest, Calif., on Sept. 19, 2021. (Noah Berger/AP)

How do we describe the state of the world’s climate as 2021 comes to a close? One climate watcher put it like this: “We live in a time of broken-record breaking.”

In August, news broadcasters described the scene in Greece as “apocalyptic” as fires roared across the country, evacuating more than a thousand people from the island of Evia. Temperatures reached nearly 117 degrees.

A heat wave shattered records in the Pacific Northwest. On June 28, Portland, Oregon, hit 116 degrees. In California, wildfires incinerated thousands of giant sequoias — trees so large and iconic they were once thought to be fireproof.

And then the strongest storm of the year, Hurricane Ida, unleashed its 150 mph winds on Louisiana before moving on and inundating the Northeast. New Jersey’s governor declared a state of emergency in response to Ida’s intense flooding that turned deadly.

These severe weather events aren’t normal when compared to weather patterns over the past few decades, says Scientific American climate editor Andrea Thompson. Extreme weather events are becoming less rare and are getting worse as time ticks on, she notes.

“How much you could tie any event to climate change depends a little on the event,” she says. “It’s a little harder for things like hurricanes, which are very complex versus a heat wave, which obviously has much more direct ties to rising temperatures.”

Interview Highlights

On the environmental consequences that follow the initial weather disaster

“The same issues with wildfires affecting water quality happen out in California and some of the West. Those are major concerns. The smoke from those fires causes major air pollution events, which we’ve seen year after year recently. Flooding, especially in Louisiana, where you have a lot of fossil fuel infrastructure, pipelines and things like that. You can get a lot of chemicals mixed in with the floodwaters, which exacerbates the disaster. You don’t just get the flooding, you get that chemical exposure too.”

On anxiety about climate change

“The main thing around that this year was a study that came out in The Lancet in September — a large survey of ten thousand 16 to 25-year-olds in 10 countries. It found that the vast majority are experiencing anxiety, fear, sadness, anger over climate change and in particular, the lack of action of governments to combat it. Forty-five percent said it affected their daily lives. But it shows how impacted particularly young people are already by climate change because I think we often thought of it for so long as a future problem when it’s really an issue that is affecting us now. We increasingly see that, and people, I think, increasingly recognize that.”

On the other hand, a significant portion of the world isn’t moved by climate change

“I think that’s true too. I think that happens, particularly in the United States, for various reasons. Some of it can be partisan political ones. In our daily lives, we have so many other things we have to focus on, particularly right now in the middle of a global pandemic, that it can seem easier to sort of push off something like climate change. But these surveys, there were some other ones to show that at least among young people, this is a really growing concern and it is having an actual mental health impact on them. And we know that it’s going to affect them far more than it affects current generations.”

On President Biden’s climate response so far

“His rhetoric and his pledges around [climate] were in very stark contrast to former President Trump’s. He immediately signed the necessary paperwork to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, which President Trump had pulled the U.S. out of just a few months before. He revoked the federal permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. And then throughout the year, he’s made big commitments and pronouncements on what the U.S. is going to do in terms of reducing our emissions. He pledged that the U.S. would cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030. Together, all of the things he has pledged are by far the biggest and most ambitious commitments the U.S. has made to date.”

On whether Biden’s pledges can be meaningful without change to the law

“So yes and no, there’s a lot of things he can do through executive action through agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. They and the Department of Transportation are going to issue strengthened vehicle emission standards, for example, and transportation is the leading contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. So there are things that can happen on the executive side that can move toward that goal. The problem comes in that executive actions can be easier to overturn if a new administration that is less climate friendly comes in. Whereas congressional actions are a lot more durable. But I think he and others would far prefer the Build Back Better act.”

On whether the COP26 climate conference lived up to expectations

“I think it definitely fell short of where people hoped it would. But there was some progress. The U.S. and China were able to come to an agreement to cooperate on technology to capture carbon from the atmosphere, to strengthen methane policies, which is not nothing. That is the kind of agreement that really underlined the development of the Paris accord, so it lays the potential foundation for more in the future. But I think a lot of people were disappointed in where countries’ pledges ended up after Glasgow, that they weren’t as ambitious as it was hoped and analysis since COP26 has shown that they’re not enough to meet the Paris goal of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. And the U.S. is a big question mark on that.”

On whether she believes we’re better off or worse off since the end of 2020

“I think overall, I feel better off than at the end of 2020. I think when you step back and look at the whole picture, I think we are in a better place in terms of the actions we’ve committed to take. But so much of that promise depends on follow through. And we’re going to have to see in 2022 and 2023 whether that follow through actually happens. I think part of it is I tried to be optimistic because I have an infant son and I want us to tackle this problem for him and the world he’s going to inherit, but that bumps up against some of the realities day-to-day. So it’s a mixed bag I think.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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