Five Climate Change Lessons From 2020
By Kristy Dahl
In early January of this year, fresh off the experience of writing a year-end blog post for 2019, I started a project that I thought would make writing this year's year-end post easier. I created a little 2020 calendar on which I planned to record the one big thing that happened in the climate change space each day. In my mind I called it "The Daily Big Deal," and I could envision myself sitting here, as I am, on December 17, reviewing the year's climate-related events and deftly knitting them together in the blog post equivalent of a beautiful scarf made of reclaimed yarn. Or an ugly sweater. Or whatever.
You can see where this is going, of course. The calendar has exactly 17 entries, almost all of them before mid-March, when the U.S. shut down amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 began its seemingly never-ending nosedive. The story of 2020 will forever be one of the COVID-19 pandemic: a story of the lives lost, the heroic commitments of medical professionals, essential workers, and vaccine researchers, the deep crises of unemployment and hunger, the months of isolation from friends and family, the loss of normalcy, the failure of our federal government to stanch the spread of this deadly virus.
Despite my abandoned efforts to chronicle it, though, climate change was also deeply woven into the story of 2020. As we close out this year, these are the five climate lessons I'll be taking with me into 2021.
1. Climate change is showing up in our daily lives whether we recognize it or not
Climate change was on full display this year as a parade of extreme events marched its way around the globe. In what was a record-breaking wildfire year across the western U.S., over 4.2 million acres of California's land burned—an area larger than the state of Connecticut and more than burned during the entire decade of the 1990s. As dire as California's fires were, consider this: The year began with wildfires in Australia that burned 10 times more land than that (about 46 million acres in all). Combined with a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season with multiple direct hits to Louisiana and Nicaragua, flooding in the U.S. Midwest, heat waves in the UK associated with more than 2,500 excess deaths, locust swarms in East Africa, devastating back-to-back typhoons in the Philippines, and countless other climate-related events, it's clear that climate change was staring us in the face—or more like screaming at us—all year long.
But climate change isn't just here in the form of these extreme events. It's here in the winter coats cast aside for a few days in the Northeast in January, when places like Pittsburgh hit 70°F. It's here in the strange, early blooms of confused spring flowers. And it's here in the lack of summertime fog in my notoriously/gloriously foggy neighborhood.
Indeed, one of the year's most chilling and powerful new studies concluded that from 2012 onward, the fingerprints of climate change can be detected from any single day in the global record. Whether it is glaringly obvious or not on any given day, climate change is already shaping our everyday lives in ways big and small.
2. When it comes to cascading risks, we need to be thinking much more broadly
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, this year's climate extremes exposed the many ways in which climate change intersects with civil unrest, water quality, financial insecurity, racial inequities in access to health care and secure housing, and countless other issues that might otherwise be perceived as being wholly unrelated.
Like pandemic preparedness, effective climate adaptation and planning will require us to think much more broadly about what climate change means than we have before.
For example, we have long recognized the interconnectedness of extreme weather and our energy systems—thousands if not millions of people lose power every year during snowstorms, hurricanes, thunderstorms, and the like. But when we look at what happened when Hurricane Laura hit Lake Charles, Louisiana, this summer, we can see that the cascading risks of climate-change-driven extreme weather extend far beyond the reach of our electricity system.
In the aftermath of Laura, hundreds of thousands of people were without power and water for days while a severe heat wave rode in on the storm's heels. Lake Charles' residents—about half of whom are Black and about 20 percent of whom live below the poverty line—had to somehow try to rebuild their homes and lives; keep themselves safe from the heat despite not being able to run their air conditioners or fans; and avoid contracting COVID-19 despite being unable to wash their hands. Add to that the financial insecurity many were experiencing after having been laid off during the pandemic shutdown, and we can see that the impacts of climate change reach deeply into so many different systems.
3. COVID-19 and climate change are racial injustices
The pandemic has touched all of our lives this year, but has taken a particularly devastating toll on Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities. In just one example, as of June, nearly one in three Black Americans personally knew someone who had died from COVID-19 compared with roughly one in 10 white Americans.
The disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color are a crystal-clear manifestation of the deep racial inequities that have built up over centuries of systemic racism in the U.S. Millions of people around the world rose up this summer to protest another manifestation of those inequities: the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people by the police.
The disproportionate impacts of climate change are yet another injustice that racism inflicts on communities of color. My colleagues and I have written extensively about these issues recently, and, personally, I'm closing this year out with a deeper understanding of the fact that we cannot and will not be able to address challenges like climate change and COVID-19 without addressing the systemic racism that results in the disproportionate suffering of Black and brown people.
4. When it comes to emissions reductions, we need profound change, but not the kind of devastating change we experienced this year
This year we expect that carbon dioxide emissions—the primary contributor to human-caused climate change–will have dropped by about 7 percent globally and about 11 percent in the U.S., primarily as a result of the widespread economic and emotional pain caused by the pandemic. This is not the kind of transformative change, driven by deep and sustained policies, that we need to meet our climate goals—and it is likely to be short-lived.
Studies show that we'll need to accomplish decreases of roughly that same magnitude every year for the next 10 years to be on track to limit future warming to 1.5-2°C, and we'll have to do so in ways that encourage economic stability, improve the quality of life for people around the globe, reduce—rather than exacerbate—racial inequities, and ensure a just transition to safe, well-paying jobs for those whose livelihoods have been entwined with the production of fossil fuels.
It's a task that looks more and more daunting by the day, particularly because emissions are on track to increase by 2 percent per year globally between now and 2030 if we continue on a business-as-usual path.
But there are multiple technically feasible pathways to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, with steep near-term reductions in emissions. And economic recovery packages that invest in clean energy rather than continuing to prop up the loathsome fossil fuel industry (as they have thus far) could put us on a path toward accomplishing near- and long-term emissions reductions.
Financial commitments to the fossil fuel industry have far outpaced commitments to clean energy in G20 countries since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
5. In the U.S. and around the world there is cause for hope
In a clear signal of the importance of climate change in U.S. voters' minds, climate change was a prominent topic in the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Indeed, pre-election surveys showed that, particularly for voters identifying as Democrats climate change was a high-priority issue despite the many immediate challenges the country faces.
The country then went on to elect a president and vice president who understand the science behind climate change and embrace the need for rapid, transformative climate action. President-elect Biden has affirmed his commitment to climate action in announcing an exciting slate of nominees and appointees who have long focused on issues of climate change and justice, including Deb Haaland, John Kerry, Gina McCarthy, and Mike Regan.
On the international front, China's pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 along with signals of similarly ambitions pledges from the EU, UK, Japan, and South Korea all serve as challenges for other countries—particularly developed countries like the U.S.—to commit to aggressive emissions reduction plans.
While we can't erase the past years and decades of climate inaction, all of these are signs that we may begin to right our path in earnest in 2021.
I think I can speak for many in the climate community when I say that the last four years have been grueling. Many of the drastic climate impacts we've long been warning about are coming to pass sooner than we had expected yet we've had to continue to fight for the issue of climate change to be named and recognized at all by our federal government. But there's been a heartening crescendo of calls over the last few years for intersectional solutions to climate change, and the incoming Biden Administration seems to be hearing those calls. There is a tremendous amount of work ahead of us as individuals, as a nation, and as a global society. But for the first time in years, I find myself hopeful that we'll start to see more meaningful progress on climate action in 2021.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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