2020 was like a never-ending nightmare — endless cycles of closing and reopening due to pandemic surges, a constant battle against police brutality, an incessant amount of Zoom meetings, the Capitol being stormed by right-wing domestic terrorists — broken up with a few flashes of comical alternative-reality. One recent example being Pinterest’s ban on former President Donald Trump.
However, for the sake of my sanity and the topic of this column, I’m here to focus on the key environmental takeaways from 2020. In most environmental news coverage, disasters are often the focal point — the sensationalization of damages and deaths attract far more viewership than stories of progress and cooperation.
2020 started off with wildfires scorching millions of acres in Australia, killing or displacing as many as three billion animals and plumes of smoke traveling as far as 7,000 miles away. Likewise, California experienced its worst wildfire season on record in terms of acres burned, as well as the largest individual wildfire.
Destructive typhoons and flash-flooding hit countries in the Pacific, and the Atlantic experienced its strongest hurricane season on record. Heavy rains and cyclonic activity caused desert locust swarms in Africa, and Siberia endured a warm season that caused wildfires producing high carbon emissions and further thawing the Arctic permafrost.
In August, a shipping vessel ran aground on a reef and spilled roughly 1,000 tons of oil into the pristine waters off the coast of Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean renowned for its pristine reefs and turquoise waters.
As if there weren’t already enough going on globally, the United States formally left the Paris Climate Agreement in November, with Trump reneging on the United States’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, marking an abrupt end to U.S. monetary assistance to fight carbon emissions worldwide leaving a funding shortfall for smaller countries struggling to mitigate the financial fallout of climate change.
The amount of natural, structural and human damage caused by these environmental emergencies is staggering, but this is only the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg. While these are just a few environmental lowlights of the past year, it’s imperative to understand that many of their long-term effects cannot be purely attributed to a single factor. Social unrest, economic instability and the worst public health crisis in a century have compounded every environmental disaster into something much, much worse.
Coronavirus set an apocalyptic backdrop for a year already filled with turmoil. Shuttered businesses turned the economy into a downward spiral. Limitations due to social distancing and public health concerns meant that the typical manpower in fighting climate-related crises was diminished, and people were more susceptible to illness and disease due to bad air quality or living in cramped evacuee shelters. With limited import and exportation, food waste was at an all-time high.
In some cases, the technology or resources to adequately prevent climate change-induced disasters doesn’t yet exist. The consequences of some of the events this past year will not be resolved in the near future — an oil spill can be cleaned up, but it will take hundreds of years for the Mauritian coral reefs to recover. And yet, progress is impossible without optimism. Even though it may be hard to believe, there is hope for a better 2021.
Despite the looming shadow of Trump and his environmental policy rollbacks, Congress has passed key legislation to protect America’s national parks with the Great American Outdoors Act, which permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provides several billion dollars to maintain facilities and infrastructures in national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.
Scientists have spotted numerous blue whales this past year, estimating a population of over 2,000, and noted a dramatic recovery due to the International Whaling Commission’s ban on hunting the animals, which were nearing extinction.
The Ocean Panel, which is composed of fourteen world leaders, put forth a plan of action committed to sustainably managing 100% of the ocean area under their national jurisdiction by 2025, producing more food, generating more renewable energy and contributing to globally reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The beginning of the lockdown in March gave scientists a rare opportunity to more accurately study the impact humans have on the natural world. Coined the “anthropause,” the slowing of human activity and travel allowed for a brief respite from heavy air pollution and land, air and sea traffic, giving scientists valuable information on more sustainably maintaining the balance of ecosystems in the future.
Due to the pandemic, oil and natural gas prices hit historic lows — prompting 36 oil companies to stall for bankruptcy and stalling pipeline projects around the world. For the first time ever, wind and solar accounted for nearly 10% of all electricity, and the United States installed a record number of new wind and solar projects.
The Biden presidency on the horizon bodes well for increasing the growth of the renewable energy sector, minimizing carbon emissions and moving towards the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. As Biden prepares to take office, big banks are expecting to face more scrutiny about how their actions and investments will impact climate change. Biden even plans to issue an executive order requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their emissions, impose climate-related stress tests and higher capital requirements on fossil fuel financing and increase transparency about their influence on climate change.
While news outlets are rightfully focused on the coverage of environmental disasters, the fight against anthropogenic climate alteration is a long-term commitment and steady grind. As with any goal, it’s important to celebrate the small victories and let them fuel us as we continue progressing in the right direction.
Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.