If you’ve felt like this year has been one bad news story after another then you’re not alone. Let’s face it, things have not been great for the environment and the many species that live on this planet for a while now, writes Waikato University researcher Raven Cretney.
Over the past year I have collated all the news stories related to the environment and climate change that I have come across in my daily life. What started out as a way to keep track of articles relevant to my work ballooned into a database of over 700 media articles and essays documenting everything from catastrophic climate change to ecological collapse.
I’m the sort of person that tends to forget it’s not socially acceptable to frequently discuss the perils of climate change. This was pointed out to me once when I started a conversation at a wedding with, ‘did you hear about the latest sea level rise projections?’ But even for me, the scale of bad news this year has left me overwhelmed.
And that’s without going into growing geopolitical instability and the rise of authoritarian politics.
Let’s start with the big stuff. The release of the IPCC special report in October confirmed that we should aim to limit warming as much as possible, preferably to 1.5 degrees. The difference in damage to natural and human systems between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is immense. Even if we can limit warming to this goal, we are likely to see 70-90% of coral reefs disappear, an increase in the severity of droughts and floods and continued sea level rise for centuries.
With greenhouse gas emissions reaching record levels this year, it is going to require a momentous effort to reach this goal. Some estimates suggest that current climate policies across the world could lead to 3.3 degrees warming.
In the meantime, it has become obvious that we are already living in a rapidly changing climate. From hurricanes to wildfire, climactic disasters have been prominent and frequent headlines.
The Northern Hemisphere hurricane season has continued to produce storms that have a devastating effect on coastal communities. Just days after the release of the IPCC report, Hurricane Michael landed on the Florida Panhandle causing widespread destruction, flattening the township of Mexico Beach. A terrifying satellite image emerged around this time showing the equator full of seven ‘super storms’. In New Zealand, a marine heatwave increased average temperatures by around 2.1 degrees. This event bought warmer sea temperatures, algal blooms and loss of permanent ice and snow in the Southern Alps.
In July, parts of Scandinavia in the Arctic circle battled wildfires and in November, extensive fires occurred across California. The Camp Fire burnt over 153,000 acres, destroying nearly 14,000 residences and resulting in the loss of 86 lives. Across all of California this year, 1.6 million acres of land has been burnt. As the fire season starts in Australia, Queensland has also been affected by bushfires and catastrophic fire danger. Fire ecologist Dr Philip Stewart has described these fires as “historically unusual.”
In the polar regions, Canadian glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting at unprecedented rates. Arctic sea ice that is usually frozen all year round broke up twice this year, something that is scaring even scientists. New Zealand glaciers are also retreating. Franz and Fox glaciers are very sensitive to changes in temperature and tourists now resort to more expensive and carbon intensive efforts such as helicopter rides to reach the ice.
Meanwhile heatwaves across parts of Europe led to ancient ruins and stone age sites being revealed in crop circle like patterns. If this was not eerie enough, the re-appearance of hunger stones in the River Elbe in central Europe bear record of previous droughts. One of these stones chillingly states when translated into English, “If you see me, weep”.
To top it off, all of this is just a taste of what could happen if we set the earth’s climate system into an irreversible domino effect, as was suggested by researchers in August. This potential ‘hothouse earth’ warming trajectory could see average global temperatures reach heights not seen in the last 1.2 million years.
As the United Nations climate change negotiations in Katowice, Poland have continued over the past week, it is clear that some countries are still reluctant to even acknowledge the extent of the problem, let alone act on it. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia blocked the conference in welcoming the IPCC special report even though the 2015 climate conference in Paris commissioned the document. These countries wanted moderated wording for the conference to ‘take note’ of the report, but without consensus, the text was dropped.
Next year will mark ten years since the Copenhagen climate negotiations. I attended this conference as part of the first New Zealand Youth Delegation and keenly felt the disappointment when the negotiations failed to adopt a framework for climate change mitigation beyond the first commitment period of the Kyoto protocol. For those of us who have been fighting for action on climate change or working on climate related issues, minimal progress to reduce emissions and continued bleak climate projections are an unwelcome reminder that we don’t want to be able to say ‘we told you so’ by 2050.
And if all of this isn’t enough to deal with, throughout the year we have also had a consistent reminder that we are not only facing climate change, but also a mass extinction event.
Environmental news has been dominated by a number of reports and stories detailing the loss of species and a growing wave of extinction facing everything from insects to mammals.
In September, the first eight bird extinctions of the 21st century were confirmed, including the Brazilian Spix Macaw that features in the children’s movie Rio. Habitat destruction by humans is one of the leading causes of these extinctions while in mountainous regions shifting climate zones is also putting pressure on bird species.
The WWF’s Living Planet report released in October claimed that vertebrate populations have declined, on average, by 60% since 1970. This is easy to believe when stories such as the decline of the world’s largest king penguin colony population by almost 90% and Arctic reindeer populations by more than 50% make a frequent appearance in the headlines.
Little critters and insects are not getting off lightly in this. This year there have been many articles discussing the astonishing decline of insect populations. As Brooke Jarvis describes in a New York Times article, there is a growing awareness of the loss of these species around the world.
It is easy to find statistics to back this up, as Jarvis reports, one study found a 90% decline in Monarch butterflies in the United States in the last twenty years. Another article in the Washington Post reported that new research has found a 60-fold loss in common invertebrates in the Puerto Rican rainforest.
I could go on for many more pages listing statistics like this that made headlines this year but I think you get the point. The decline of some of these species is related to many factors including climate change and habitat loss. It is becoming increasingly clear that our society is operating beyond the bounds of our planetary systems.
Motivating people to get up for the challenge
Sometimes it can feel like the sheer scale of these challenges is overwhelming, and it is. These stories have become so frequent that they can quickly fade into the background of our day to day lives.
But there is value in taking stock of what has happened this year and using it to motivate action for 2019.
A few months ago, on The Spinoff, Danyl MacLauchlan argued that many people just don’t care about climate change, particularly because humans tend to discount the future. David Hall rebutted this point, noting that a recent poll found 64% of New Zealanders do care about climate change, but that there are challenges in catalyzing action.
So, people do care about climate change and issues like species extinction, and I would argue that we are seeing more people that are willing to stand up and demand change.
Young people around the world are leading this action. Inspired by Greta Thunberg in Sweden, youth strikes have occurred in Australia and the Pacific, and lawsuits have been taken out against governments by young people in Canada and the United States.
The Extinction Rebellion is a new addition to this uprising as one of many movements globally calling for change. This year in Aotearoa, activists, iwi and local communities have been fighting to end oil exploration and drilling for good and an end to seabed mining. There has also been a wave of support and volunteering for conservation, especially in urban areas.
Stuff has taken on this challenge – launching a long-term project to make the “realities of climate change feel tangible and unignorable”. The impacts of global warming and opportunities for change are now frequent additions to the front-page news.
The IPCC special report makes it clear that we do have a chance to stop catastrophic climate change. It has to be quick and drastic, but there is still a chance to avert a greater disaster than we already face. As John Schwartz writes in the New York Times “how awful things get, and for how many people, depends on what we do.”
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And if, after thinking on this bad year of news, you are feeling a little down I’ll share one of my feel-good news highlights from the year – this Narwhal whale who has adopted a pod of Beluga whales, and now thinks he’s one of them.
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.