The urgent need for assistance from Pacific island nations is being highlighted by melting glaciers, floods in Germany, record summer temperatures in Oregon, and other disasters such as the flooding of the Rhine. In 2021, climate change was felt worldwide with increasing urgency.
A United Nations climate conference in Glascow, Scotland, in November — called COP26 — ended with almost 200 nations agreeing to a compromise aimed at keeping a key global warming target alive, but which contained a last-minute change that watered down language about phasing out coal.
Many nations were unhappy with the deal because it did not go fast enough. However, they said that it was better than nothing and made incremental progress.
Here are some Associated Press journalists who covered the story. They also share their personal experiences.
SETH BORENSTEIN, science writer, Washington, D.C.
We are back to where we were at COP26. There’s a little bit more being done to try to control emissions, a lot more pledges to do stuff. Many of these pledges still have a future focus. These net-zero by 2050, 2060 pledges — these are pledges made by leaders who won’t be alive when their pledges become due.
It was also an interesting year with a major August climate report. But more than anything, it’s yet another year where climate change keeps popping up in extreme weather all over the world. This year, the effects of climate change are more apparent in Western countries that have been richer than in the past. There has been severe flooding in Tennessee, Germany, and Belgium. The wildfires and 47-degree heat in Portland, Oregon are just two examples. If I had to pick one odd thing, the Pacific Northwest is famous for its mildness. However, there are many records that are far more extreme than theirs. And that’s what Portland was.
Rich countries aren’t exempt. But when you’re rich, you can flee that more easily. You can weather weather extremes when you’re in the global North far better than you can in the South. But then, there come extremes that are so big, that wealth can’t help you as much.
And so that’s one of the issues of adaptation: the rich countries of the world can, and the poor countries can’t. That was one of our main concerns at the conference in Scotland. We saw this combination of hope and despair as nations pledged to reduce their emissions in the future. More so than they’ve ever done. Yet, temperatures are still rising and extremes are getting worse. So you sort of have this combination of optimism — and there was a lot of optimism there — and also harsh reality smacking each other in the face. And you would ping-pong there from “Oh, this looks promising” to “Oh my God.”
FRANK JORDANS, correspondent, Berlin:
It struck me as a strange thing that this year’s coverage of climate change was different from normal. Covering a war 100 kilometres away from the front lines is something I would do. Because you believe that all the action is taking place elsewhere. And it’s certainly true that most of the direst impact is happening in countries in what’s known as the global south. Or the far north, because that’s heating up much faster than anywhere else.
Two events happened in Germany this year that were quite remarkable. One of them was the April Supreme Court decision here in Germany. Basically the court ruled that the government hadn’t done enough to chart the course that the country needs to set if it wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to meet these Paris goals. The judges stated that they were putting too much strain on the younger generations and pushing too far into 2030. They also stated that this was a restriction on the freedoms of the younger generations. … The judges in the Supreme Court here actually said that if we don’t tackle climate change, then core freedoms are going to be impinged upon. That was a very significant moment that could influence the future trajectory of government thinking.
The second was the floods Seth mentioned in Germany or Belgium. While there are floods occasionally in these areas, they are not like what we saw in the July floods. While some may say that we should have known this was coming, in reality, the majority of people were not prepared for it. It was a wake-up call to see 200 people killed and entire villages swept away in a matter hours. In a country like Germany, I mean, they can afford to rebuild, but it’s still billions (in damages) in one devastating flood.
NOAH BERGER, photographer, San Francisco:
I’ve been a news photographer for 26 years, so I’ve done a bunch wildfires here and there. But really, 2013’s Rim Fire near Yosemite was the first one that got me focused on this as a specialty. I rode around with a Getty colleague and spent a few hours there. I loved being out there.
California has press access to emergency areas. …. So, when I started, it was more an issue of how close you could get yourself because I didn’t have all the tools that I have now. Although it was more difficult to pinpoint the right spots to be, it was a rewarding experience. After that, I decided this was what I wanted to do with my summers, and falls. And every year since then, I’ve really ramped up the gear that I use, the knowledge I have, the interactions with firefighters. Whether it’s something physical, like a carbon monoxide detector for the car, or fire shelter, or a better understanding of firefighting techniques.
Every year I’ve increased my fire knowledge. And it’s worked out well, because our fires have also ramped up incredibly. With a few exceptions, every year you see new superlatives like more homes, more deaths, and more intensity. Particularly since 2015.
It’s easy to get along with firefighters. I’m dressed like a firefighter. I can speak the language. You know, I pull up and they know I’m not a firefighter, but I also blend in. … I have a difficult time with (civilians). I mean, we go up to somebody, and usually it’s somebody who’s either fleeing their home as flames bear down, in immediate danger or returning to their leveled home. And it’s really hard to go up to people as a human. You know, it’s one of the worst days of their lives and you say, “Hey, can I hang out with you?”
I think the intensity has been startling for all of us, and how much it’s increased. I don’t know what percentage you can put on climate change, what percentage on PG&E, what percent on the bark beetle tree mortality, which was part of the drought here, where a lot of trees have are very flammable and combustible. But it’s pretty indisputable that the fires have definitely intensified. The exact figure could be found online, I believe. But, according to CalFire, our state firefighting agency, 15 out of 20 of California’s most destructive wildfires have occurred in the last six years. It’s a very striking statistic. I’ve only been doing this for eight years, and I’ve covered 14 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California history.