What 2020 taught us about the climate crisis

We must take advantage of opportunities for change to stop the climate crisis from becoming so serious that it drives us towards collective erasure.

Last April, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that there was a 75 per cent probability of 2020 being a “historic” year for the climate crisis. These forecasts have now been confirmed.

The Copernicus Climate Change Service, the EU climate change body, got the ball rolling with the announcement that 2020 had been the hottest year on record, tied with 2016. The service found that global average temperatures were 1.25 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) and 0.6 degrees higher than between 1981 and 2010. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a NASA division, agreed with these findings, while the NOAA and the independent Berkeley Earth institute both found that 2020 was very slightly – almost imperceptibly – cooler than 2016.

Lessons from the annus horribilis

So 2020 was an annus horribilis for everyone, even for the climate. It would have been strange if the reverse were true. Whether it was the hottest or second-hottest year, climate data from 2020 has cemented the trend in temperature rises, with the past six years being the hottest since records began – and the hottest three being barely distinguishable from one another.

Copernicus also found that 2020 was the hottest year on record in Europe, with temperatures 1.6 degrees higher than the 1981-2010 average, and a difference of 0.4 degrees compared to the previous record set in 2019.

Europe too is burning and is a global warming hotspot. And yet no national newspaper in any European nation chose to write about this on its front pages, despite the fact that this issue should overshadow any other, be it a health or political crisis. Alas, it was not to be. No one thought it might be of interest to their readers that the most consistent anomaly on the continent was recorded where it should be coldest: the Arctic Circle and Siberia. Here, average temperatures were 6 (six!) degrees higher than the 1981-2010 average.

Not just numbers

Data, numbers, statistics and lists are, however, just a small part of the story. The New York Times has pointed out that the true tragedy is the increase in heatwaves, hurricanes and extreme weather events, in droughts that lead to desertification, unprecedented wildfires and floods that cause enormous damage, not just to human settlements.

The (almost) new record, moreover, coincided with a La Niña event, which in theory should lead to milder conditions due to cooler ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific. Contrast this with El Niño, which causes the warming of the eastern Pacific. It should be noted, however, that La Niña’s effects, which kicked off in September 2020, should be felt starting from 2021.

Given the sparse coverage by media and governments, one can’t help but wonder what purpose a year like 2020 has served if it hasn’t changed the way we exchange information about globally important issues vital to every human being and community living on this planet? We experienced a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, but this does not and will not have concrete effects if it doesn’t become a consistent trend. What was the point of shutting everything down if nothing, not even journalism, is willing to change, put pressure on institutions and take people’s concerns into account (also given that they have amply proven to care about their future and that of new generations)? If news reporting hasn’t changed, how can we expect those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo from shifting?

We can defeat the climate crisis together

This is a question we have to reflect upon, especially at a time when the media are experiencing revolutionary shifts following what happened in the United States – the very same United States that recorded a 10 per cent collapse in CO2 emissions. If the country were able to stay on track with this trend, it might even be within reach of achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals.

We must take advantage of the opportunities and space for change provided by an extraordinary year – in the widest sense of the term – to avoid the climate crisis from becoming so serious that we’re driven “to activate a mechanism of collective erasure to abstract a problem that looms over us and for which we’re unable to find solutions,” as Stefano Liberti writes in his book Terra Bruciata (“scorched Earth”). It is our last chance to build a future worthy of our species’ name, Homo sapiens sapiens.

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