2019 is slated to be the second-warmest year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This means that, come year’s end, all of the top 10 warmest recorded years will have happened in the last two decades. The climate is worsening as we speak, and the years we have left to prevent even more catastrophic change are flying by.
But there is something that sets this year apart, and it’s not just because of the ever-worsening climate disasters. 2019 marked a renaissance for the climate movement. For the first time, the climate crisis became a top issue for registered Democrats, likely in part due to the newly widespread discussion of the Green New Deal (which every major news outlet covered in some way), and the hard work of climate activists.
In January, Al Gore said in an interview that the U.S. was reaching a “political tipping point” on climate. “This election, in 2020,” Gore predicted in The Atlantic, “is almost certainly going to be different from any previous presidential election in that a number of candidates will be placing climate at or near the top of their agenda.” Cheers to Gore — he was right. A Democratic candidate ran explicitly as a climate candidate for the first time in this election, and the other candidates are continually coming out with decarbonization plans.
As we approach a vital election year, this list is a reminder of how far we came on climate in 2019 — and how far we have to go.
Green New Deal
After the Sunrise Movement’s protest at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office toward the end of last year, awareness of the Green New Deal (GND) exploded in the first half of 2019. The plan takes on different forms depending on who you ask; nuclear power, for instance, is controversial, but the central tenant of scrubbing carbon out of every part of the country with a strong focus on social equity remains. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first formally submitted a congressional resolution on the GND in February, and it remains the single most comprehensive plan offered by an elected official to address the climate crisis.
Support for a GND has become a litmus test for politicians, and especially so for the Democratic presidential candidates. Organizations like Sunrise and progressive think tank Data for Progress have created GND scorecards to rank candidates’ climate plans. The candidates discussed the plan, albeit briefly, at the second primary debate. Meanwhile, both Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein were (rightly) panned for making dismissive remarks regarding the GND. After Feinstein waved young Sunrise activists out of her office, Ocasio-Cortez coined the term “climate delayer” to describe those who put off the bold policies necessary to address the climate crisis.
On a broader scale, though, the introduction of the GND has changed the discourse around climate. Before the GND, discussion of the climate crisis on an economic and justice level was limited to those deeply embroiled in climate politics. The plan has now elevated that discussion to include not only scientists, but also non-climate pundits and journalists. “New Deal” has become a common descriptor for other plans, with proposals for a Green New Deal for public housing and the ocean.
We’re still far from implementing a Green New Deal. But the plan has sticking power and has people talking about climate on a higher level than ever. That’s a great start.
Fossil Fuel Greenwashing
While the solutions to the climate crisis reached new heights in U.S. politics this year, we also learned more about how deeply fossil fuels are ingrained in our society. Not only have fossil fuel companies wedged themselves into even the smallest corners of our society, but they have also been ramping up greenwashing campaigns.
We’ve known for years that the fossil fuel industry borrows insidious misinformation tactics from the tobacco industry, which lied about the health effects of smoking for decades, to spread climate denial. Those tactics have only become bolder and more obvious than ever.
In March, in front of the European Parliament, ExxonMobil tried to discredit research done by Harvard researchers in 2017 that found evidence of fossil fuel corporations’ climate denial campaign. Shell is pushing millions in donations to top universities, including MIT and Cambridge. Social media users, especially as the election has ramped up, found themselves inundated with greenwashing ads by fossil fuel companies that tout their supposed dedication to clean energy. But their dedication is actually to pushing natural gas and carbon capture technology that actually helps them extract more oil.
Companies launder clean energy promises through politicians and the media, who have been parroting those messages. A new bipartisan Senate caucus dedicated to the climate is filled with people whose climate plans tout “solutions” favored by the fossil fuel industry like carbon capture. Almost all of the people on this caucus have received thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry. Meanwhile, outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have been publishing content sponsored by fossil fuel corporations disguised as regular content.
Fossil fuel corporations also had an outsized influence on this year’s UN climate change conference, COP25. This year’s meeting was key, because it was the last time the nations would meet to discuss the Paris Agreement—and for many reasons, it was a failure. And one factor was the fact that fossil fuel companies had sponsored the talks themselves, holding events and plastering their names and greenwashing slogans all over the walls.
2020 Democratic Hopefuls
Thankfully, top Democratic presidential candidates—former vice president Joe Biden and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—have all signed the no fossil fuel money pledge, meaning that our next president, should voters go Democrat in 2020, will have rejected fossil fuel money on the campaign trail. This in itself is a powerful sign of how far politicians and the public have come in understanding the impact of fossil fuel money in politics.
This election marked the first time that there was a Democratic presidential candidate running a climate-centric campaign. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee dropped out of the race in August but was arguably successful in ensuring that the climate was given more attention by other candidates and the media. Throughout his campaign, he unrolled a comprehensive climate plan that Senator Warren and Julián Castro have now borrowed from.
Along with work from climate journalists, Inslee was also successful in getting a televised candidate discussion of the climate crisis—sort of. Instead of a climate debate, which was Inslee’s real demand, CNN held a seven-hour-long climate town hall for 10 of the candidates. This was a win for the climate, as it was the first time a major news outlet had dedicated prime time solely to climate, but its length was a slog, even for those who work in the climate field.
It doesn’t count as a full win, though, because there was still no event where candidates directly debated each other’s plans; Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee, was staunchly against the idea. The DNC voted against it and went so far as to threaten to institute a ban on any candidate who took part in one. This was after Sunrise activists protested outside the DNC headquarters for three days and many climate communicators, including me, made the case for one.
Top candidates all have relatively comprehensive climate plans, which is a start, but there’s still a long way to go. Even with a Democratic majority in Congress, climate plans may still meet resistance from institutions like the military, which have deep, strong ties to fossil fuels. And, though candidates have climate plans, they may not be walking the talk—some of Biden’s staffers have ties to oil and gas, and he’s been notably silent on a fracking ban, as other candidates have supported.
Blackouts in California
Wildfires are a regular part of life for Californians, but the past couple of decades have made them worse, due in part to an increasingly arid climate. This year in particular showed how unprepared California is for the wildfire season to become even more treacherous.
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the felonious private California utility, imposed blackouts on as many as 800,000 customers in October in order to prevent sparking yet another wildfire. The utility already declared bankruptcy earlier this year to recover from billions of dollars in civil liabilities, fees that they would likely ultimately pass onto their customers. In recent years, PG&E has been responsible for numerous wildfires while failing to maintain the faulty equipment that causes them. The blackouts were meant to prevent another fire from sparking—but the company might have started the Kincade fire during the blackouts anyway.
Blackouts aren’t just a mere inconvenience for residents; for disabled people in the affected areas, they posed a potentially deadly problem: They put the lives of disabled people, some of whose lives depend on medical equipment and refrigerated medication like insulin, at risk.
The entire fiasco demonstrated how thoroughly unprepared utilities, and by extension, the public, is to handle climate disaster.
Youth Climate Activists
Young people were born into the climate crisis, and many of them have shown that they’re not willing to suffer from it.
The Sunrise Movement, made mostly of people younger than 30, has had a banner year after an explosive entrance into the public eye in 2018. The group made waves with its talk with Feinstein. In the spring, Sunrise went on a nationwide tour to inform and excite the public about the Green New Deal. The group even helped to get progressive candidates elected in New York.
It’s not just Sunrise, though—other youth climate activists have also been organizing their own climate actions. The most prominent figure is Greta Thunberg, who, much to the chagrin of conservatives and the president, Time Magazine recently named 2019’s person of the year.
With her Fridays for Future school strikes, Thunberg turned a one-person strike into an estimated 4 million person worldwide strike in September, likely the largest climate protest in history. She became a household name over the course of a few months. Shortly after the strike, she gave a powerful speech at the UN Climate Action Summit, and then again recently at COP25. In both, she demands better of world leaders gathered at these conferences.
Thunberg and her fellow youth activists have experienced a meteoric rise this year. And, from what it looks like, there’ll be no stopping them.
Worsening Climate Disasters
Unfortunately, no end-of-year climate list would be complete without a discussion of the steady onset of the climate crisis.
Over the past year, far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro razed more than 3,700 acres of the Amazon rainforest, the highest loss in over a decade, according to The New York Times. Part of this deforestation is motivated by anti-Indigenous views that Bolsonaro holds. Lax regulations also led to an increase in fires, which are all human made, in the Amazon this year. Just in August, nearly 20,000 fires broke out in the forest. The Amazon serves as a vital carbon sink, storing tens of millions of tons of carbon—but, due to the fires, might soon reach a tipping point where it’ll start burning itself.
Countless other ecological systems are near or at a tipping point, according to research published this year. Alaska’s sea ice melted earlier in the year than ever before; Arctic permafrost is becoming thawed year-round; and disruption in the ocean circulation system, which may or may not already be here, could cause a cascade of further systems across the world to collapse. Permanent drought, deadlier storms and mass extinctions are all on the horizon.
We only have 9 percent of the carbon budget left before we hit an unavoidable 1.5°C of warming, and even 1.5 degrees brings potentially catastrophic change. And yet carbon emissions hit a record global high this year.
It’s near impossible to overstate how vital it is that we act now. Every year is more important than the last. Luckily, the environmental movement made huge strides this year—hopefully, this year is just the beginning.