President Biden Rejoins Paris Agreement and Kills Keystone XL on Day 1 of His Administration
Joe Biden, who ran on the most progressive and comprehensive climate plan of any presidential candidate in history, took the oath of office just before noon on Jan. 20 outside a Capitol building that had been ransacked just two weeks earlier by a Trump-supporting mob.
Related: Biden Cancels Keystone XL, Halts Drilling in Arctic Refuge on Day One, Signaling a Larger Shift Away From Fossil Fuels
That Wednesday evening, the new president signed executive orders aimed at aggressively fighting climate change—something Trump glaringly failed to do.
From revoking the Keystone XL pipeline permit to rejoining the Paris climate agreement, the sweeping directives laid a road map for the work ahead on the climate crisis.
An Indian Glacier Burst Leaves 200 Dead or Missing
A glacier in northern India caused a massive landslide on Feb. 7, leaving 200 people missing or dead and ripping through two hydroelectric dam projects, where many of the victims were working.
Scientists had long warned that hydropower projects were dangerous in the fragile region, which is made more vulnerable by global warming. But the Indian government overrode the objections of experts and the protests of local residents and blasted rocks to build the projects anyway, The New York Times reported on Feb. 8.
Health and Environmental Crises Lead to Shutdown of a Virgin Islands Refinery
After shutting down in 2012 and declaring bankruptcy in 2015, St. Croix’s Limetree Bay refinery restarted operations under new ownership in February 2021. But within days, the refinery began experiencing what became a series of high-profile accidents that enraged nearby residents.
Related: Plans to Reopen St. Croix’s Limetree Refinery Have Analysts Surprised and Residents Concerned
The Environmental Protection Agency found that Limetree was in violation of the Clean Air Act and ordered the facility to halt operations, citing an “imminent” health threat to residents. Then this summer, Limetree’s owners declared bankruptcy and announced the facility would cease operations for good. Now, many St. Croix residents fear the plant could reopen as the owners prepare to sell it off.
The Texas Deep Freeze and Energy Crisis
Frigid cold temperatures took out power for millions of Texans in mid-February. For days, people huddled under blankets and charged phones and computers in their cars. In the panic of the crisis, some, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, blamed the massive blackouts on the shift to clean energy, when the crux of the problem was, in fact, the extreme weather, ICN clean energy reporter Dan Gearino reported during the crisis.
Related: The Right and Wrong Lessons from the Texas Crisis
The blustery conditions were so extreme that every major source of electricity was affected, and fossil fuel-generated energy saw much greater disruptions from the freeze than clean energy sources.
“It’s very, very easy to recognize failure as an indication that you’re going the wrong way, when it might be more about just the fact that we’re still learning how to do this.”— Emily Grubert, an energy systems researcher at Georgia Tech
Southeast Australia Hit With Record Floods After 4 Days of Rain
First Indigenous Cabinet Secretary Visits the Land of Her Ancestors
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous person to become a cabinet secretary, became the new president’s top public lands official in 2021, overseeing 244 million acres. She has deep roots in Bears Ears, land that was once inhabited by her Pueblo ancestors and is now a national monument that was in limbo during the Trump administration.
Related: The First Native American Cabinet Secretary Visits the Land of Her Ancestors and Sees Firsthand the Obstacles to Compromise
In April, Haaland visited the monument with sovereign tribes, marking a new chapter in the struggle over managing public lands. On Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden directed the Interior Secretary to advise him on changing the boundaries and the management of Bears Ears and two other national monuments, the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, off the coast of Maine.
Biden and World Leaders Gather (Virtually) to Make Climate Pledges
Related: Jobs and Technology Take Center Stage at Friday’s Summit, With Biden Pitching Climate Action as a Boon for the Economy
President Joe Biden marked the nation’s re-entry into the Paris climate agreement with a virtual summit of 40 world leaders on Earth Day, April 22. During the event, the United States pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half, China promised to begin phasing down its coal consumption and Brazil said it would end illegal deforestation.
“No nation can solve this crisis on our own. All of us, all of us—and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies—we have to step up.”— President Biden, addressing leaders at the virtual climate summit
Shell Ordered to Cut Emissions by Nearly Half by 2030
Related: Dutch Court Gives Shell Nine Years to Cut Its Carbon Emissions by 45 Percent from 2019 Levels
Thousands Protest Line 3, But Its Construction Is Completed Anyway
Thousands of protesters gathered in northern Minnesota in early June for a four-day demonstration against the Line 3 pipeline replacement project, a 1,000-mile-long oil pipeline constructed by Enbridge Energy to deliver energy-intensive Canadian crude from the tar sands of Alberta to the Midwest.
Related: Line 3 Drew Thousands of Protesters to Minnesota This Summer. Last Week, Enbridge Declared the Pipeline Almost Finished
Although this summer’s protesters slowed construction of Line 3 when they chained themselves to pipeline construction equipment, the project went on and is now up and running. Many had hoped the Biden administration would intervene, as it did with the Keystone XL pipeline in January. Those hopes were dashed after the Department of Justice filed a legal brief in late June that defended the project.
“I drove people to the polls for you, Joe Biden. I drove people to the polls who had never, never voted in their lives. We believed in you.”— Winona LaDuke, a Native activist who fought the Line 3 replacement project for seven years
Unprecedented Heat Bakes the Pacific Northwest
In late June, temperatures across most of Oregon and Washington spiked 20 to 30 degrees Celsius above normal. Hundreds died after suffering from heat-related illnesses in the region. Lytton, British Columbia, broke the Canadian high temperature record on three successive days, finally reaching 121 degrees Fahrenheit, far hotter than any temperature ever recorded in Canada. Hours later, a wildfire destroyed 90 percent of the village of 300 people.
Related: A Week After the Pacific Northwest Heat Wave, Study Shows it Was ‘Almost Impossible’ Without Global Warming
Scientists quickly concluded that the sky-high temperatures that were so unusual for the region would almost certainly have been impossible to reach without human-caused global warming.
Climate Change Fuels Deadly Floods in Germany
Nearly 200 people were killed in the floods that washed away centuries-old towns in northeastern Germany after extreme rainfall hit the region in mid-July. Scientists conducted a rapid attribution analysis shortly after the deluge, and found that global warming made the flooding between 1.2 and 9 times more likely, and made rainstorms in the region 3 percent to 19 percent more intense.
“The German language hardly knows any words for the devastation that has been caused here.”— Angela Merkel, then-Chancellor of Germany at a news conference near the destruction
Related: In a Summer of Deadly Deluges, New Research Shows How Global Warming Fuels Flooding
Hundreds Die in China Floods
Heat, Drought and Fire in the Russian Arctic
Southwest Turkey Burns in Nation’s Worst Fires Ever
A severe heat wave and drought in Turkey was followed by deadly wildfires that burned near the country’s southwest coast in late July and early August. At least eight people were killed and thousands were forced to evacuate, including many tourists enjoying Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. The heat intensity from the blazes was four times higher than the previous daily maximum—“off the scale” of anything seen in the last two decades in the country, the Guardian reported.
Fires also plagued neighboring Greece during the country’s worst heat wave in 30 years.
Related: The Fires That Raged on This Greek Island Are Out. Now Northern Evia Faces a Long Road to Recovery
A Water Supply Crisis on the Colorado River
A two-decade trend of drying and warming left the Colorado River tapped out late in the summer. The 1,450-mile-long river supplies water for 40 million people in the Southwest, irrigates crops in seven U.S. states and two in Mexico and provides hydroelectric power to the region.
Scientists say the only way forward is to rein in demands on the river’s water to match its decline. But who will be forced to use less? That’s a question that water managers are facing in the years ahead as the dry trend continues.
Related: A Crisis Of Water And Power On The Colorado River
Nearly a Million Acres Burn in Dixie Fire
The Dixie Fire started burning in northeastern California, just south of Lake Tahoe, on July 13, 2021. After more than 100 days, firefighters finally contained the blaze that destroyed more than 1,000 structures and burned most of the historic town of Greenville, California. Investigators are still working to determine what caused the massive fire, but Pacific Gas & Electric has said its equipment may be to blame.
Related: Exploding California Wildfires Rekindle Debate Over Whether to Snuff Out Blazes in Wilderness Areas or Let Them Burn
Hurricane Ida Rips Across the Country, Causing Devastation From Louisiana to New England
Related: Amid the Misery of Hurricane Ida, Coastal Restoration Offers Hope. But the Price Is High
Related: After Ida, Louisiana Struggles to Tally the Environmental Cost. Activists Say Officials Must Do Better
Biggest Direct Air Carbon Capture Facility Begins Operating in Iceland
Related: Biggest ‘Direct Air Capture’ Plant Starts Pulling in Carbon, But Involves a Fraction of the Gas in the Atmosphere
Climate Activists Arrested at the Department of Interior
Related: Indigenous Climate Activists Arrested After ‘Occupying’ US Department of Interior
Nations Talk Climate in Glasgow; Activists Call for More
At the widely anticipated United Nations’ COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, countries agreed to cut global methane emissions by 30 percent, halt global deforestation by 2030 and potentially reduce the “unabated” consumption of coal.
Related: COP Negotiators Demand Nations do More to Curb Climate Change, but Required Emissions Cuts Remain Elusive
Yet despite the agreement reached in Glasgow, the world is still on a path to warming about 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and climate activists were not pleased with the final deal that was signed. Thousands of mostly young people demonstrated outside the building where COP26 was held on Friday, Nov. 5, led by youth climate activist icon Greta Thunberg.
Related: In Glasgow, COP26 Negotiators Do Little to Cut Emissions, but Allow Oil and Gas Executives to Rest Easy
“No more blah, blah, blah. No more whatever the f—k they’re doing inside there.”— Greta Thunberg, speaking to a crowd of climate protesters on Nov. 2 outside the COP26 climate talks
Deforestation Continues in the Amazon, Despite Pledges to Stop It
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro signed onto a global pact to end deforestation by 2030 and restore degraded forests during the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. The country is home to the Amazon rainforest, which stores billions of tons of carbon, helping to stabilize the atmosphere and provide a counterweight to global warming.
Yet critics of the agreement said the agreement lacks teeth and green-lights at least another decade of unabated logging that will further harm the climate. That made it easy for countries with critical forests and high rates of deforestation, like Brazil, to sign on.
Related: The Amazon is the Planet’s Counterweight to Global Warming, a Place of Stupefying Richness Under Relentless Assault
This year, deforestation in Brazil had risen—yet again—over the previous year. Advocacy groups, Indigenous tribes and some of the world’s most prominent human rights lawyers tie the destruction to Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies and rhetoric, believing the president should be prosecuted. Bolsonaro’s role in destroying the Amazon, they believe, makes him a criminal on a par with genocidal dictators or the architects of war crimes.
“A vast amount of carbon would be converted from organic matter into carbon dioxide and that would add to the carbon dioxide we’re already putting into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. That would be a catastrophe for humanity and for everything else.”— Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist with Colorado State University, on what would happen if the world lost the Amazon rainforest
Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Includes Funds for Climate Resilience
Related: Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Includes Money for Recycling, But the Debate Over Plastics Rages On
Protesters Demonstrate Against Shell Seismic Tests in South Africa
Winter Tornado Cluster Tears Through Central U.S.
A cluster of tornadoes tore through five central U.S. states from the night of Dec. 10 into the morning of Dec. 11. At least 88 people were killed as the storm ripped through the region, causing buildings to collapse, including an Amazon warehouse where six workers died, and a candle factory, where eight workers’ bodies were recovered.
The connection between climate change and tornadoes is not yet clear, but a recent study showed that for every 1 degree Celsius of warming, conditions favorable to breeding severe storms and tornadoes increase between 5 and 20 percent.
Related: Global Warming Can Set The Stage for Deadly Tornadoes
Just a few days later, high winds, warm temperatures and severe storms pushed through the Great Plains and the Midwest in another unseasonable burst of meteorological catastrophes.