2020’s climate change disasters serve as warning for 2021

Rowan O'Flanagan, Staffer

2020 was a notable year for many reasons, among which were the immense and immediate effects of climate change. As a pandemic swept the world, so did wildfires, hurricanes and extreme temperatures, all of which will only worsen unless major actions are taken 

The year began with a massive blaze in Australia, which burned an area of land larger than Florida and released as much ash into the atmosphere as a volcanic eruption. One study reported that climate change caused the conditions responsible for Australia’s wildfires to be 30% more likely, a seemingly small difference which is incredibly concerning considering the damage a single wildfire can cause. 

Later in the year, the United States was struck by record-breaking wildfires. In California, almost 4.2 million acres were burned, including 1.03 million acres which were destroyed by the August Complex fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. Spurred on by record setting blazes also in Colorado and Washington, a total of 10.27 million acres were burned by wildfires across the U.S., another somber historical record (source: Yale Climate Connections).  

On the other side of the country, a different series odisasters were unfolding. During the six-month long Atlantic hurricane season, 30 named storms formed, 12 of which hit the United States. This too set a historical record, and devasted parts of the gulf coast 

To make matters worse, 2020 was also one of the hottest years in recorded history, second only to 2016Average surface temperatures reached 1.25 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, despite weather patterns which should have resulted in cooler temperatures.  

Though it is nearly impossible to definitively attribute any weather event to climate change, rising CO2 levels almost certainly contributed to the disastrous yearAccording to the UN, global CO2 levels also set a record last year – 410 parts per million and rising rapidly. While coronavirus restrictions around the world did cause a small drop in global emissions, World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas referred to it as “just a tiny blip on the long-term graph.” Any real attempt to stop climate change will require a significantly bigger drop in emissions.  

Considering the impact climate change is already having on countless lives around the worldthat attempt needs to be made as soon as possible. Climate change is a global issue, which requires global action. Many countries have already made pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 in the hopes of possibly avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change, though it is uncertain whether this target is ambitious enough. 

Unless there is a massive decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, 2020 will be just the tip of the iceberg of our planet’s climate related troubles. Wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves and other natural disasters will continue to increase in frequency and power, causing untold suffering across the globe. We simply cannot ignore our warming planet anymore. 2021 must be a year of climate action.