5 Environmental Stories That Could Outline 2020

The 5 Environmental Stories That Could Outline 2020

From severe heat to Greta Thunberg and the youth climate demonstrations — we look at some of the important environmental and climate news stories set to outline the new year. Droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, floods, warming seas, and melting ice ― 2019 was a year ruled by stories of the evolving climate crisis.

(Edit: This is pre-Covid19)

The science is alarming us loud and clear that we have a very narrow time to deal with the global climate breakdown. But what exactly will 2020 bring? As 2019 bows out with a whimper as far as significant international action is involved, we look at five environmental stories likely to lead the headlines in the new year as we start to understand more about the catastrophe we face and how to extract ourselves from it.

  1. Air pollution: the silent emergency

November-2019 Silhouette of India Gate
Silhouette of India Gate with a vacuum cleaner for road deployed to combat air pollution in the Indian capital o Dehli. Pollution level causes smog in the winter season due to stagnant winds. Picture from Nov 2019.

To breathe safely in today’s world is getting harder with every passing day. In 2019, hazardous air pollution clogged cities across the globe from San Francisco to Sydney to Johannesburg.

In Delhi, the condition has become almost apocalyptic. Conditions in the city of approximately 19 million people were “worse than hell,” as mentioned by the country’s Supreme Court in November. India has been hit by the highest wave of choking air pollution, due to a combination of factors including industrial pollution and farmers razing their crops outside the city, all aggravated by still, hot weather.

At times, the quality of the air was so deadly that some experts compared it to smoking 50 cigarettes each day.

Because it is in the air and you can not see it, it’s the type of an insidious killer. Nicholas Watts, director of the Lancet Countdown

Delhi is dangerous, but it’s far from the only place where breathing has become harmful. More than 90% of people worldwide breathe toxic air. Air pollution causes around 7 million deaths a year, according to the landmark Lancet Countdown account on health and climate change printed in November.

If people were dying due to “something that was in our water or something that was in our food,” said Nicholas Watts, the senior director of the Lancet Countdown, “there would be global anger. But because it’s in the atmosphere and you can’t see it, it’s sort of a deceptive killer.”

The WHO has termed it a “silent public health emergency.” Research shows that air pollution harms almost every organ in the body, according to a study revealed in February 2019. It has been connected to a host of health problems, including asthma, cancer, lung disease, strokes, and mental health problems. Very young children, as well as older adults, are mainly vulnerable, as are those on lower incomes and groups of color.

There is optimism, said Watts: We know the answers, and we have the technology to substitute fossil fuels. There are countries around the globe already able to function 100% on renewable energy, and, he added, we also have proof that moving away from fossil fuels makes monetary sense too, as it would lighten a significant burden from health care systems.

Confronting air pollution brings “almost instant and substantial effects,” a December research by experts from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies found, containing dramatic decreases in asthma, fewer heart attacks, fewer children missing school, and fewer premature births.

Tackling air pollution, said Watts, “is not an engineering query, it’s not a financial or an economic question, it is completely a question of political choice.”

  1. Demonstration: the rise of the youth climate movement

A young girl holds a protest sign that reads 'CO2 is in the air'
A young girl holds a protest sign that reads ‘CO2 is in the air’ with the word love crossed out in a ‘Fridays for Future’ inspired climate demonstration march in the United Kingdom on Sept 20, 2019. Source: Getty

Upon questioning five climate scientists, what, among all the dreadfully bleak climate news of 2019, gave them courage. The most constant response: the momentum and energy of the youth climate movement.

From a lonely Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish Parliament on her first school strike in August 2018 to about 6 million protesting on the streets across the world during the climate strikes in September 2019 ― the movement has escalated exponentially in scale. And they have an influence, making headlines and raising awareness. Surveys show Americans are starting to be more concerned about climate change, with the most important stimulus being a desire to “give a better life for our children and grandchildren.”

Though Thunberg remains frustrated. Talking to world leaders at the COP25 climate conference in Madrid in December, she said, “We have been protesting for over a year, and fundamentally nothing has happened. Those in power are still overlooking the climate crisis, and we cannot go on like this.”

She is also trying to move attention to more sidelined voices who are already facing the impact of climate change impacts, such as young people from Native communities.

The youth climate movement is not only Thunberg. The Sunrise Movement, established in 2017 by recent graduates and college students, propelled itself to the front of climate activism with a protest outside the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in November 2018 ― in which they were supported by then-Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) ― asking that the Democratic leader do much more on climate change.

The Sunrise Movement helped promote the term “Green New Deal.” The idea includes activating resources and society to create an innovative economy, run on clean energy, and green, living-wage jobs. Green New Deal promises are now in the climate plans of many Democratic presidential candidates.

Since its initiation as a small grassroots organization, the Sunrise Movement has spread fast. It presently has nearly 300 chapters across the U.S. The group is changing into a force in the 2020 elections, trying to stimulate the youth vote and recommending several enlightened Senate candidates who support the Green New Deal. It also issued a record for the climate proposals of each of the Democrat presidential candidates.

Although youth talking about climate transformation is not anything new, Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park told Nature, this particular generation of climate kids is louder and more organized: “Young people are getting so much response that it brings more young people into the program.” We can expect the opinions of young climate activists to get vocal as we move toward climate crunch dates in 2020.

“They’re making claims on people my age and younger, who have handled this as if it was a routine issue, like a science discussion, only about the planet,” said Gina McCarthy, a public health professor at Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health and the former EPA administrator under President Barack Obama, “instead of understanding we are basically looking at a challenge that could deprive our young people of the chance to have a rich and full life.”

  1. Severe heat: our ever hotter world

woman drinking water india heat
Rajasthan, India: A Women having water in the street during the Indian heatwave on July 25, 2019. Temperatures in the state got more than 124 degrees Fahrenheit (50.6 Celcius) in July. Source: Getty Images

Extreme heat looks to be here to stay. The world experienced scorching temperatures in 2019, with the hottest July ever recorded. It seems all but sure that 2019 will be in the top five warmest years on record. Human-caused global heating, and the existing failure to significantly cut emissions, means the heat we experience is likely to get more extreme and more frequent.

We see the impacts on melting ice, warming oceans, burning forests, and heatwaves, like the one in France this summertime that killed 1,500 people. Qatar has got so hot it has started air conditioning the outside, and record-breaking heat waves in Pakistan and India caused temperatures reaching 124 degrees Fahrenheit in some places.

Heat is the top weather killer in the U.S., causing up to 1,500 deaths annually, more deaths than floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes. By midcentury, if no action is taken, the U.S. can anticipate the number of days where temperatures surpass 105 degrees to triple.

Those most vulnerable are the elderly and very young, but high temperatures also excessively affect those already ill, pregnant women, athletes, those who work outdoors, and people on low incomes.

“It’s so sinister in that it affects pretty much most sections of society,” said Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Heat can have destructive impacts on the body, including heatstroke, heat stress, and links to chronic kidney disease. It worsens existing conditions, such as respiratory and heart diseases. It can also cause premature births, which can have a substantial impact on the long-term health of the child.

“Extreme heat is among the lethal weather hazards society faces,” states the “Killer Heat” report issued by the UCS. “It is possible [heat extremes] will upset daily life for the average U.S. resident more than any other feature of climate change.”

The solutions are twofold, states Licker: We need to reduce emissions as soon as possible to avoid further increases in extreme heat. And we need to adjust to what’s already happening by having strategies on how to keep people safe. Severe heat, she adds, “is one of the first signs that we really see of climate change and one of the things that, on the other side, we could do a lot about very speedily.”

  1. The Amazon: a desperate fight for survival

Aerial view from space fires in the Amazon
Aerial view from space of the fires in the Amazon forest. Source: Shutterstock

The Amazon rainforest is in disaster. Once the smoke starts to clear from the wildfires that speeded through the biodiversity hot spot, the destruction is becoming clear.

Under the eye of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power in 2018 on promises to open the Amazon for business, the Amazon has lost about 3,800 square miles of forest cover during July 2019. And the destruction looks set to carry on as Bolsonaro works to make it easier for cattle, soy, timber, and mining companies to destroy swaths of forest.

From January to July of 2019, deforestation increased 67% year over year. There were over 80,000 fires in the Amazon in 2019 ― up 75% over the previous year ― many of which are attributed to the burning rainforest to free the land for agriculture and industry.

The largest rainforest in the world is more than 2 million square miles in dimension, encompasses around 40% of South America and trails through eight countries, with 60% in Brazil. It’s a vital ecosystem, home to 10% of the world’s biodiversity and backing not only the Indigenous populations who have existed there for generations, and who now face increased violence and displacement but all of us.

The rainforest stocks carbon dioxide ― nearly 100 billion tons of carbon a year, equal to ten years of global emissions ― making it an essential natural cushion against climate change.

amazon rainforest burning
A fire in the Amazon rainforest in rural Novo Progresso, Brazil, in Aug 2019. August saw the highest rates of forest burnings in the last decade.

This year is expect toed be a vital one. We will find out whether increased levels of destruction are a blip or whether they are part of a rising trend that could seal the destiny of the whole ecosystem.

Scientists are concerned that we are rapidly getting closer to a tipping point, where levels of destruction thrust the Amazon to a place from which it cannot mend. Rainforest will become grassland, releasing billions of ton of carbon dioxide and quickly escalating the climate crisis. It’s assessed that this tipping point will come when between 20% to 25% of the rainforest is ruined. Some experts, including admired Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre, believe that 17% of the Amazon has been lost till now.

“The Amazon is at a huge risk of destruction and with it, the security of our generation and generations to come,” penned more than 40 Latin American climatologists in September in a paper displayed at a conference in the Vatican.

  1. Presidential Elections: The U.S. goes to the voting booth

cnn protestors climate change 2019
Thousands of climate activists gathered outside CNN on Sept. 4, 2019, before the presidential candidates’ climate change forum

America’s presidential poll is a climate story. Time is running out to put a halt on disastrous climate change, and somebody in the White House in 2021 will have a significant role to play. The reappointment of Donald Trump ― who has regularly denied the climate crisis, rolled back environmental protections and plans to leave from the Paris climate agreement ― would make the fundamental international action needed to spin the crisis around seem particularly unlikely.

Climate change has become a significant issue in the U.S. elections, indicating an abrupt shift from recent elections in which it has usually been considered as a niche side issue. About 7 in 10 Americans (69%) think climate change is happening, above half understand it’s human-caused, and about 6 in 10 are at least “somewhat worried” about its effects, as reported by a Yale survey in April. Support is extraordinary among Democrats. A CNN survey in April 2019 revealed that climate change was a “very important election” issue for 82% of them.

Democratic presidential candidates have disclosed their plans to tackle the crisis, many grounded on the concept of a Green New Deal. And in September, Democratic presidential candidtes spent seven hours discussing climate change policies at a CNN town hall on the subject.

Even Republicans and right-wing news organizations are beginning to talk about climate change, though some experts warn this may not be a worthy thing. In November, Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson used his stated climate concern to make anti-immigrant declarations: “Isn’t flocking your country the fastest way to damage it, to spoil it, to make it, you know, a place you would not want to live in?” For some, this symbolizes worrying reverberate of eco-fascism ― where environmental debates are used to propagate fascist aims.

As we move toward November, the month, the U.S. would officially exit the Paris agreement and the month of COP26, the significant annual international climate conference, climate change looks set to remain definitely on the election agenda.

What do you think (apart from the Corona Virus which was almost unpredictable), will happen in 2020?)