Climate change and an environment in peril were visible in many of 2022’s defining moments: record-smashing heat waves in Europe and South Asia, droughts pushing the fragile global food system to its limit and energy and food markets shaken by war in Ukraine.
Climate change also left its fingerprints on stories that didn’t make the front page, like low income neighborhoods recovering months after wildfires swept through and rising health problems in environmental justice communities.
The impacts of global warming this year were perhaps most visual in Pakistan, where a deadly, months-long spring heat wave was followed by a devastating monsoon season with floods unlike any seen in the last 100 years. Pakistan’s delegation served as a leader in the push to get a commitment to loss and damage funding in the COP27 international climate talks in November. Money from wealthy countries that have disproportionately caused climate change will be dedicated to finance energy transitions in poorer countries that are enduring the worst impacts of a warming planet.
This collection of photography is by no means exhaustive in representing climate change in the year that was, but it offers a sampling that shows a crisis bearing down, and a glimpse of where we go from here.
War, Energy and Fossil Fuels
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February massively disrupted global food and energy markets, as Ukraine was a major breadbasket for the world and Russia was a vital source of energy for much of Europe. The war has been one of the factors driving inflation around the globe. In Europe, this has been strongly felt in high energy prices that have complicated countries’ commitments to transition to renewable energy.
Food and Famine
Researchers have long warned of the negative impacts that climate change will have on the world’s staple crops. But a recent spike in hunger and famine are revealing the instability of a global food system that is ill prepared for shocks, whether from war, pandemics, severe storms or drought.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the Horn of Africa, where nearly 26 million people are facing extreme hunger, with some areas already reaching catastrophic famine levels, according to the United Nations. Inside Climate News reporter Georgina Gustin and photographer Larry C. Price traveled to the drought-stricken region and encountered refugee camps where food and water was scarce, hundreds of animals that have succumbed to starvation and child malnutrition at record-high levels.
On the other side of the planet, farmers on the Hopi reservation in northeast Arizona have long grown their traditional heirloom corn with nothing but rainwater. But in the era of climate change and a decades-long megadrought in the region, some are choosing to artificially irrigate their crops. Their choice to forgo the traditional growing method helps ensure there is a successful crop of corn, which is used in Hopi weddings and ceremonies, as ICN contributor David Wallace reported and photographed this fall.
This year marked the third straight year the Chesapeake Bay saw a decline in blue crab populations. The iconic delicacy is now at a record-low, likely because of a sex imbalance in the population, increases in predation and changes in the environment, ICN reporter Aman Azhar reported in June. Chesapeake Bay is the source of more than one-third of the total blue crab supply in the United States, and the fishery is one of the bay’s most lucrative.
Where There’s an Unhealthy Environment, There Are Unhealthy People
Wedgewood, a historically Black neighborhood in Pensacola, Florida, was built beginning in the 1950s as an aspirational destination for Black people to live. Here, families were able to invest in their homes and pass them down to their children. Today, Wedgewood is home to seven solid waste facilities and four borrow pits—giant holes dug for sand and clay, later to be filled with garbage, some of it toxic.
LaFanette Soles-Woods spent her life fighting on behalf of the community, where the cancer rate and heart disease rate exceeds the state average. Her testimony helped convince authorities to put three borrow pit renewals on hold and conduct a health and environmental study of Wedgewood. She also suffered from a long list of illnesses—high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease, sleep apnea and breast cancer, among others. She died in 2021 of a heart attack at age 63. Although her neighbors and friends saw her as “the mother hen” and felt lost in her absence, her work lives on. This year, the county signed off on $450,000 for new environmental justice initiatives, ICN reporter Agya K. Aning reported in May.
Another predominantly Black neighborhood—Grays Ferry in Philadelphia—saw the closure of a nearby refinery in 2019. The closure was cheered as a major victory by those working at the intersection of equity, social justice and environmentalism.
But despite the refinery’s closure and demolition, the site where it once stood is still emitting harmful chemicals as its new owners engage in tense negotiations with a coalition of residents and activists over a neighborhood investment and revitalization plan, which would help accelerate the approval process so that development projects at the former plant can move forward. Despite assurances by the site’s new owners, some neighbors are concerned about the possibility that future industrial work there could negatively impact the community, ICN’s Victoria St. Martin reported in July.
Debbie Robinson, a 58-year-old resident who has been active in efforts to improve conditions at the refinery site, has restrictive lung disease, kidney disease and asthma, and she’s needed an oxygen tank to breathe for the last six months, despite not being a smoker. She attributes her ailments to having spent most of the last two decades living barely a mile from the old refinery site.
In Yesinia Martinez’s backyard in Arvin, California, an ear-splitting rumble comes from an operational oil pumpjack. It’s always been there, the 21-year-old said, and so have her health problems: nosebleeds, stomach troubles, bouts of anemia, dry eyes, headaches, fatigue and memory problems that make it difficult to study for school.
None of Martinez’s doctors ever connected her litany of ailments to the pumpjack in her backyard or the scores of wells in and around town that help make Arvin’s air among the nation’s worst. But an air monitor atop her home detected unhealthy volatile organic compounds, ICN’s Liza Gross reported in August.
Some activists ramped up their actions as the time remaining to prevent the worst effects of climate change wanes. More than 1,000 scientists, who normally play the role of a neutral information providers, picked up the torch of activism with demonstrations in 25 countries in April in the wake of a dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In the U.S., a handful of researchers were arrested for locking themselves to the gate of the White House and to the front door of the JPMorgan Chase bank in Los Angeles, as well as blocking traffic on the I-395 highway in Washington, D.C.
The events were part of a growing movement dubbed the “Scientist Rebellion,” a coalition of researchers around the world who seek to “expose the reality and severity of the climate and ecological emergency by engaging in non-violent civil disobedience,” ICN reporter Kristoffer Tigue reported in April.
2022 may well be known for climate activists defacing art and gluing themselves to different surfaces. This happened during several publicity stunts by members of groups including Just Stop Oil and Last Generation. But as climate protesters adopt more radical tactics to highlight what they say is a world moving far too slowly to prevent catastrophic global warming in the coming decades, they’re being met with a slew of new anti-protest laws from policymakers who say the demonstrations are going too far, Tigue reported in November.
From the Heart of the Amazon
Brazil’s vast rainforests, wetlands and savannahs are vital resources for buffering climate change. The Amazon rainforest holds 150 billion to 200 billion tons of carbon in its soils and vegetation—five times the amount that is emitted annually in greenhouse gases.
The country’s stewardship of such a vital planetary resource has been a source of concern and controversy. Deforestation surged to a 15-year high during the rule of President Jair Bolsonaro as he encouraged agricultural expansion. But Bolsonaro’s reign will be complete at the end of this year after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated the sitting president in a close contest.
As Brazil’s landscape has been exploited, much has also been done to try to protect it. In the southeast, traditional communities in the Pantanal attempt to live sustainably, despite the wetland region suffering from catastrophic and potentially irrevocable fire damage. In the northwest, a group of lawyers and justice advocates scouted the region for evidence to support a legal movement based on the premise that nature has inherent legal rights to exist and regenerate, just as humans possess human rights by virtue of their existence.
The Rising Sea
This year’s hurricane season saw 14 named storms, eight of which became hurricanes. Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 18, knocking out power to most of the island despite efforts made to make the electrical grid more resilient after 2017’s Hurricane Maria. But, Kristoffer Tigue reported that many Puerto Ricans who have installed solar panels did not lose power during the storm.
Hurricane Ian struck the Gulf coast of Florida a few days later as a Category 4 storm and is tied for the fifth-biggest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The storm caused 131 deaths and will likely be one of the costliest hurricanes to ever hit Florida, NOAA reports. The devastation called into question whether Gov. Ron DeSantis’s approach to climate change—focusing on adaptation—is sufficient, ICN reporter James Bruggers and contributor Amy Green reported in October.
The storm surge that comes from hurricanes like Fiona and Ian highlight how vulnerable coastal cities are to sea level rise. But in Manila Bay in the Philippines, not only is the sea rising—the land is sinking. The combination of groundwater pumping and mangrove deforestation have created a ticking time bomb for the bay—one of the most vulnerable to typhoon storm surges and tides on the planet. Until that bomb goes off, life goes on, as ICN contributor James Whitlow Delano reported and photographed this year.
A Punishing Summer
Pakistan was battered by climate change this year. The South Asian nation experienced a two-month-long heatwave in the spring that caused at least 90 deaths and sent temperatures as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit in some cities, including Jacobabad. The landlocked city saw temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for 51 days straight, pushing the limits of human livability, ICN reporter Zoha Tunio reported in May. The heat wave was made 30 times more likely by climate change, World Weather Attribution found.
It wasn’t just heat. The hot spring was followed by the worst monsoon season in a century, Tunio reported. Pakistan and neighboring countries saw hundreds of lives lost and incalculable damage to property and livelihoods. Pakistan also experienced an unusually high number of wildfires this year.
Europe also suffered from heat waves this summer. Pinhão, Portugal reached 116.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The United Kingdom recorded its hottest temperature ever—104.5 degrees Fahrenheit in Coningsby in July. Attribution scientists found that the heat wave was made 10 times more likely by climate change. In many parts of Europe, the heat was followed by wildfires.
Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam that supplies water to Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico, is at a record-low level. A decades-long drought in the West has dried the reservoir to a fraction of the size it was in 2000. The now-exposed lake bottom has unveiled a number of surprises this year that were previously hidden by the water, including a World War II-era boat, ash deposits from past volcanic eruptions and at least six human bodies.
Out of the Ashes
2022 won’t go down as a top year for wildfires in the United States, like many years of the past decade. But the story doesn’t end when the fire burns out. From the suburbs of Boulder, Colorado, to a historic Black neighborhood at the foot of Mount Shasta, to the mobile home parks of northern California, recovery is just beginning.
Fires have also had long-term consequences on the wider ecosystem. Nearly one-fifth of California’s iconic sequoia trees have been lost to fires since 2020, ICN contributor Twilight Greenaway reported in September. This July, the Washburn Fire burned through part of Yosemite’s iconic Mariposa Grove. Photos of giant sequoias steeped in smoke and surrounded by automated sprinklers to shelter them from the flames shocked viewers around the globe. To prevent further damage, a coalition of groups have been conducting prescribed burns to reduce the amount of woody fuel that could drive megafires in the forest.
The Road to Solutions
Plastics present enormous environmental problems at both ends of their life cycle. They are made of fossil fuels, with substantial climate-warming emissions associated with their production. And plastic waste is clogging the oceans and increasingly found everywhere from the poles, to the summit of Mount Everest to human blood.
Plastic was never designed to be recycled—most plastics end up in landfills and incinerators, or as litter around cities, across landscapes and in waterways. A San Francisco-based company is vying to change that by taking the lead in a yet-to-be-proven new industry—chemical recycling of plastic back into the material’s building blocks. But its factory in Indiana is struggling to get off the ground. Plus, environmental organizations and their powerful allies in Congress are fighting against chemical recycling in particular, because they see it as perpetuating climate-damaging fossil fuels, ICN’s James Bruggers reported in September.
Rural, agricultural regions of the U.S. have some of the best land available for solar energy generation in the country. But local opposition to solar projects has been a huge barrier to getting projects approved. Instead of cheering a boost to the tax base and to farmers’ incomes, the critics see an invader that will make the place they love unrecognizable, and they see supporters of solar, even if they are friends and neighbors, as adversaries, ICN’s Dan Gearino reported this year in his Solar Opposites series.
But one rural community north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota is offering a test case for the concerns raised by these critics. In Chisago County, solar has been around long enough that the ramifications are a reality rather than speculation, and it’s clear that the worst fears of the most adamant critics have not come to pass.
The ecosystem of California’s Mono Lake—a haven for birds marred by decades of water diversions to Los Angeles—probably would have collapsed sometime in the early 2000s under the combined pressure of diversions and global warming. But in 1994, the lake became a centerpiece in an ambitious restoration project that includes streams feeding the lake.
Mono Lake’s persistence suggests that helping nature heal itself can be more effective than drastic technological and engineering interventions, ICN’s Bob Berwyn reported in October. Rather than sweeping policy remedies, quick fixes and one-time pushes for action, the lake’s recovery resulted from decades of sustained efforts. Los Angeles has cut diversions from the basin by 80 percent, leaving enough water for the streams and lake to start healing. Yellow warblers flit through new riverside forests of cottonwoods and willows, some of which can grow eight feet a year, given enough moisture. There’s a new understory of grass and brush filling spaces between the vanilla-scented Jeffrey pines that survived the man-made drought. Mono Lake is a “hopeful example,” experts say, for others trying to mend Earth’s shredded biosphere.