2019, the year the world woke up to climate change

By Vanora Bennett

Children and adults protest against climate change

Until recently, for most people, climate change was firmly in the realm of the hypothetical.

It wasn’t that nothing was happening. In the past decade, an estimated one person per second has been forced to leave home following sudden weather disasters - in 2017 alone, 18 million people – and slower changes from desertification to sea level rises have forced more people on to the move. A World Bank report in March 2018 said 143 million people worldwide could be displaced by 2050 if nothing is done to halt climate change.

But Joe Average had nothing much to say about the melting polar ice caps or permafrost, or the growing risk of floods and freak storms and forest fires that worry policymakers who link these phenomena with ever greater greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. Even after the international community had decided, through the Paris Agreement of 2015 and annual global policy meetings since, to try to limit man-made global warming to 2C and if possible 1.5C, fear of the dangerous consequences of global warming was surprisingly muted outside administrative and scientific circles. Was it lack of understanding, or feeling overwhelmed, or suspicion of the elites calling for change, or just plain apathy? Whatever it was, popular interest in the topic seemed restrained.

And then the world woke up.

The change of consciousness began at about the time of a stark warning by leading climate scientists in October 2018. We only have 12 years to limit impending climate change catastrophe, said the report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ). Beyond that, even half a degree of warming will significantly worsen the risks for hundreds of millions of people from drought, heat, floods and poverty. To keep temperature rises below 1.5C by 2100, emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be dramatically cut, by 45 per cent in the 12 years to 2030 and to “net zero” – carbon neutral, with no more greenhouse gases emitted than are disposed of – by 2050.

Such warnings began to work on the popular imagination. The catchphrase “only 12 years to save the planet,” suddenly became part of the global conversation. Teenagers talked about it, and their mums and dads tweeted it.

A little earlier in 2018, a second phenomenon was underway. In Stockholm, a solemn schoolgirl with plaits and a placard sat down outside the Swedish parliament to mark her anger at her government’s climate inaction. Her placard read "Skolstrejk för klimatet" … ("School strike for the climate"). Greta Thunberg, who was 15, began her strike on 20 August 2018 and was there daily for several weeks, before switching to striking every Friday.

Greta Thunberg wasn’t the only one willing to protest. Early that September, a few strikers also started gathering every day outside the House of Representatives in The Hague, and, starting a few days later, more gathered in front of the Bundestag in Berlin. By September 21, in the Dutch town of Zeist, 10-year-old Lily Platt had begun weekly climate strikes, and on November Canadian sixth-grader Sophia Mathur started her own protest in the town of Sudbury.

By the end of October, a bigger protest movement had also come alive.

This started in the UK, where the radical climate protest movement Extinction Rebellion was born with a “Declaration of Rebellion” in London’s Parliament Square. Greta Thunberg came, in an electric car.  The assembly – which included respected figures such as Green MP Caroline Lucas and environmental writer George Monbiot - occupied the road in front of Parliament. On 31 October, 15 people were arrested. In the next two weeks, the total rose to more than 60. Exuberant acts of civil disobedience ranged from people gluing their hands to government buildings to unveiling a “Climate Change …. We’re Fucked” banner over Westminster Bridge. By 17 November, “Rebellion Day”, 6000 people blocked five bridges over London’s River Thames. The Guardian called it “one of the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the UK in decades.” 

Outside the UK, a “Rebellion Day” in New York was followed by protests in Australia, Stockholm, Dublin, Copenhagen, Berlin and Madrid. In Zurich, demonstrators dyed the River Limmat luminous green.

By the time global policymakers turned up for their annual climate action summit in December – COP24 in Katowice, Poland - schoolchildren in multiple countries had started a school climate strike movement, Fridays for Future. Greta Thunburg was one of the speakers at COP24.

Katowice saw some stirring speeches. British TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough told the conference “we are facing ... our greatest threat in thousands of years. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon”. Thunberg said, “we are facing an existential threat. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced”.

By the time 2019 started, with more news that – far from emissions being stopped, they were actually still rising, as were record high temperatures – student and other strikes had captured the zeitgeist. A global strike on 15 March gathered more than one million supporters, with around 2200 protests in 125 countries. On 24 May, a second global strike included 1600 events across 150 countries, coinciding with the 2019 European Parliament election. The 2019 Global Week for Future was a series of 4500 strikes across over 150 countries on the last two Fridays of September. Four million people joined the first, and two million the second.

By the time Greta Thunberg went to the next global climate policy event, the UN Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September, she was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Arriving by yacht, she berated world leaders for their “betrayal” of young people.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.”

The period of protest has also seen an upturn in worrying weather events.

June 2019 was the hottest June since records began in 1880. Nine out of the ten warmest Junes have occurred since 2010.

Cyclones in Mozambique in March and April wiped out entire cities, leaving millions homeless. June saw India facing its worst water crisis, with Chennai the first of 21 cities forecast to run out of groundwater by 2020. In August, wildfires in Brazil destroyed tracts of the world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon, pumping record – and alarming - quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. September brought Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful cyclone ever to strike the Bahamas. October brought wildfires to large tracts of California.

It's not just the protest-prone part of the population taking note of this, but even the silent majority as well. A slew of 2019 studies show a record number of people now say they understand climate change is real, and are worried about its effects.

One study described in the New York Times in January 2019 showed 73 per cent of Americans believe global warming is happening – up 10 percentage points from 2015 and three since March 2018. And 62 per cent understand global warming is caused mostly by human activities, up 10 points since 2015.

In the year since the “12-years-to-go” IPCC report, the situation has evolved.

There’s been a shift in climate financing patterns towards more (and perhaps more pessimistic) spending on adaptation and resilience. This involves allocating part of the money earmarked for climate action to adapting our lives and technologies to filter out climate change’s worst results rather than purely on preventing it in the first place.

The timetable of fear has changed too. In 2019, policymakers are talking about the need for decisive climate action in the 18 months to the end of 2020, a much smaller window than the 12 years from 2018 to 2030.

The reason is that - if the necessary steps are to be taken to allow enough cuts in carbon emissions to take place by 2030 and let the world reach a goal of net zero emissions by 2050 – they must be agreed before the end of next year.

One less well-known conclusion of the IPCC report was that global emissions of carbon dioxide must peak by 2020 to keep the planet below 1.5C. Current plans, set out in individual countries’ National Defined Contributions, are nowhere near enough to keep temperatures below this limit.

In fact, the world is still heading towards a more dangerous 3C of heating, or more, by 2100. And the latest UN report on climate change, released in November 2019, says that, to meet the 1.5C target, world leaders will have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by a staggering 7.6 per cent every year for the next decade.

With plans made in five- and ten-year timeframes, it is vital to agree the way forward by the start of the new time-frame in 2020, and define the bigger and better emissions-cutting targets that countries have promised for the next period from 2020-2025.

At a climate summit in New York in September, the host, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, asked guests to bring significant offers to improve their national carbon-cutting plans. Many did.

Sixty-five countries pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and 70 to boost their national action plan by 2020. The European Union promised to allocate at least 25 per cent of its next budget to climate action, and Russia to become the 187th country to ratify the Paris Agreement. Greece promised to close its coal power plants by 2028. The world’s biggest pension funds and insurers, which direct over US$ 2 trillion of investment, committed to carbon neutral portfolios by 2050. Major industrial firms including steel, cement and shipping companies, as well as 100 banks worth a collective US$ 35 trillion, aim to move towards carbon neutrality by 2050 too. Last but not least, as EBRD President Sir Suma Chakrabarti reported to the Bank’s Board, “significant extra funding was promised by MDBs for the 2020-25 period, including much more money from the private sector whose growing support is vital to transform the climate action sums ‘from billions to trillions’”. The EBRD has been coordinating these efforts.

At the next summit, COP25 in Madrid, delegates hope to agree measures known as “Article 6” including market mechanisms for carbon trading that will help the private sector to become a more powerful force in climate action. The final stage of the current cycle will be at COP26, where the agenda for still more radical action in the next cycle will be set.

The world is at a tipping point. Climate change threatens economies. But there are reasons for hope.

Companies who now see a threat to their own bottom line are identifying climate change as one of the biggest risks of systemic change and putting pressure on governments to do more. There is better and cheaper new technology for renewable energy, allowing the price of “good” renewables to fall below that of fossil fuels in many places. And a new generation has become more aware of the dangers and willing to protest at the slow pace of change.

With people in so many walks of life demanding significant action, politicians are that much more likely to find ways to push through change.