11 vital climate lessons from 2021 to help you through 2022
This year will be pivotal.
Forget what you thought you knew about the climate crisis. In terms of weather, this year will be so much more extreme than the past — but it could also be the year we take the path to change. Every major climate moment in 2021 reveals the potential for innovation, resilience, and actions that both individuals and governments can take to ride out the coming storms.
It is impossible to put a positive spin on the extreme weather events that marked 2021, and which will only become more frequent in the coming years due to global warming. But as we get a New Year underway, it is worth examining 11 of the wildest climate takeaways of 2021 — and the helpful steps forward they reveal that can help us address the crisis head-on.
In brief, our shortlist comes down to these 11 lessons:
11. Trees’ growing seasons are changing
10. Far more fossil fuels need to stay underground than we thought
9. Climate change needs a messaging reboot
8. The permafrost is more critical to the future of Earth than you know
7. We now know when polar bears will disappear — unless we act
6. The fate of the Arctic and the western United States are connected
5. A maligned animal could help solve global warming
4. Cities need to change for one vital reason
3. The Amazon rainforest may not save us
2. Animals are evolving to cope
1. It’s not so simple as taking a year off from air travel
Let’s dive into each of these lessons...
11. Trees’ growth seasons are changing — and making allergies worse
Climate change affects trees and plant life — and, in turn, our seasonal allergies. According to a February 2021 study, warming temperatures lengthen the spring pollen season, in turn worsening the symptoms of seasonal allergies and other respiratory issues.
A second study suggests warmer temperatures in cities, in particular, are causing trees’ leaves to turn green earlier in spring. The autumnal leaf color change occurs later, in contrast — again, likely exacerbating allergies.
Here’s the solution — Trees have been shown to cool cities down, and advocates have encouraged tree planting to offset carbon dioxide emissions contributing to global warming. But these studies and other research suggest we need to be more conscientious about where, when, and how we go about planting trees in cities, taking into account how their growing season is affected by urban environments.
The best thing you can do to minimize pollen exposure is to avoid outdoor activities early in the morning — when pollen counts are highest — and to close your window at night.
10. Fossil fuels need to stay in the ground
To keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the ideal benchmark to avert climate catastrophe — in a paper published earlier this year, a team of researchers says we have to keep the majority of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. That includes 97 percent of the coal in the United States.
Specifically, the researchers state:
- Sixty percent of the world’s oil and methane gas needs to remain unextracted
- Ninety percent of the world’s coal needs to remain unextracted
Here’s the solution — We need to speed up the transition to renewable energy.
To that end, the researchers give five specific suggestions to make the transition toward renewable energy:
- Nix production subsidies for fossil fuels
- Tax the production of fossil fuels
- Penalize companies that fail to comply with fossil-fuel regulations, especially methane leaks
- Ban new fossil-fuel exploration
- Institute international initiatives, like a treaty on the non-proliferation of fossil fuels
9. People care about climate change
Earlier this year, the United Nations released findings from the People’s Climate Vote, the world’s largest survey on climate change thus far. It encompasses 1.2 million participants from 50 countries.
You can read our full summary of the key findings, but the biggest takeaway of all is people of all ages recognize climate change is an emergency. Yet not everyone favored urgent action, suggesting a lack of education around climate change issues — there is also a clear generational difference in how people think about climate change. According to the findings:
"Nearly 70 [percent] of under-18s said that climate change is a global emergency, compared to 65 [percent] of those aged 18-35, 66 [percent] aged 36-59 and 58 [percent] of those aged over 60."
Here’s the solution — The report clearly states “more education is required even for those people who are already concerned about climate change.” Organizations like NASA are on it — the space agency currently offers climate change curriculum resources for U.S. schools.
The report also highlights four popular climate-change policies for governments to aim toward:
- Conservation of forests and land (54 percent)
- Solar, wind, and renewable power (53 percent)
- Climate-friendly farming techniques (52 percent)
- Investing more in green businesses and jobs (50 percent)
8. The permafrost is an overlooked and critical factor in global warming
Thawing Siberian permafrost — a layer of soil that normally remains frozen year-round — has unearthed the terrifying remains of ancient creatures, but an even scarier thing is emerging from beneath the ice.
In 2021, scientists concluded policymakers, including at the UN, aren’t focusing enough on the emissions released from the melting permafrost and Arctic wildfires. The researchers predict carbon dioxide emissions from permafrost may increase by 30 percent by the end of the century — a metric that isn’t being considered in climate change conversations.
As a result, policymakers may be seriously underestimating the amount of fossil fuel emissions we need to reduce to keep global warming in check.
Here’s the solution — Scientists need to warn policymakers of the imminent threat posed by permafrost thaw and Arctic wildfires, especially ahead of key climate talks.
The UN wrapped up its climate change conference, COP26, earlier this year, but will reconvene in Egypt next year for further discussions — the permafrost should be on the agenda/.
7. When polar bears will disappear
Scientists have been sounding the alarm on the threat melting Arctic ice poses to polar bear habitats, but in 2021, they put an extinction date on this iconic species — if we should fail to act on climate change.
Under a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions, Arctic summer ice will completely melt by 2100, killing off the ice-dependent polar bear as well.
Here’s the solution — If we can lower greenhouse gas emissions and global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius Celsius above pre-industrial levels, summer ice — and polar bears — in the Arctic will still have a fighting chance.
Countries can also establish protected marine reserves, like Canada’s Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area, to reduce pollutants that harm sea ice.
6. Ice melt fuels extreme weather
In 2021, wildfires raged out of control from California to Greece. Longer and drier fire seasons, fueled by climate-change-driven drought, were to blame. But scientists also recently identified a devastating link between wildfires and a surprising place: the Arctic.
Using scientific models, researchers demonstrated how melting Arctic sea ice could be linked to hotter and drier weather in the western U.S. through air circulation patterns. So, melting Arctic sea ice could indicate a greater risk of wildfires in this region.
Here’s the solution — Researchers are hopeful that their findings can inform better fire management in the western U.S. since they can track the loss of Arctic sea ice a few months in advance of fires in the U.S. and prevent wildfires from occurring in the first place.
5. Cows may have a silver-lining
Scientists have long recognized the devastating effect of cows’ belches and farts, which release methane into the atmosphere.
But what if we could harness cows to help save us from the climate crisis? It’s a radical idea, but two recent pieces of research suggest it’s not a completely farfetched idea.
Here’s the solution — The first study proposes potty training cows to urinate in specific areas, thereby limiting the flow of nitrous oxide from their pee. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so this bizarre experiment could have seriously positive results for the climate.
The second study tackles the problem of plastic recycling using cows, or, rather, their guts. Single-use plastic products clog our landfills, and their production contributes to global warming. Researchers found that bacterial enzymes in the cow’s rumen are very good at decomposing plastic.
Don’t worry — this doesn’t mean we’ll feed plastic to cows. Instead, researchers suggest acquiring cow rumen from slaughterhouses and using their bacterial enzymes to degrade plastic on a commercial scale.
4. Record-breaking heat hits multiple cities
2021 may go down as the first hottest year of the rest of our lives. Heatwaves scorched much of the western US in June 2021, followed by record-breaking December temperatures.
Rising temperatures are one of the most keenly felt effects of the climate crisis this year — and cities are especially vulnerable due to the urban heat island effect, which traps heat in asphalt. Researchers revealed a map showing which cities — such as Dhaka, Shanghai, and Baton Rouge — are greatest at risk of deadly urban heat.
Here’s the solution — There are ways we can beat the heat. In parts of India, climate-resilient cities are getting ahead of heatwaves by painting white “cool roofs” that deflect sunlight.
The UN also released a list of six cities that are using climate-friendly cooling methods. Among them is Paris, France, which takes water from the Seine River, chills it, and runs it through pipes surrounding buildings for cooler temperatures — an eco-friendly A/C replacement.
3. Deforestation is turning the Amazon rainforest into a carbon emitter
Environmentalists often refer to the Amazon as “the world’s lungs.” Historically, it’s been one of the world’s largest carbon sinks — places that absorb more carbon dioxide than they emit, helping reduce the impact of global warming.
But due to rampant deforestation in the Amazon, the rainforest has turned from one of the world’s largest carbon sinks to one of its biggest emitters. Two shocking findings from earlier this year confirm this trend.
First, a study published in Nature found the rainforest is now emitting 0.3 billion tons of carbon into the air each year. Second, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found deforestation and climate-change-related drought is significantly reducing the Amazon’s role as a carbon sink.
Here’s the solution — We need to halt deforestation in the Amazon — fast.
World leaders at the UN’s COP26 conference announced a landmark initiative to end deforestation by 2030, which will, presumably, focus heavily on the Amazon. Brazil, which controls much of the Amazon, also signed this pledge.
Meanwhile, consumers can consider if products they consume are resulting in deforestation in the Amazon. Trees in the Amazon are commonly cut down to make room for soy production and grazing for cattle, AKA, beef.
2. Animals are adapting to climate change
Frogs are aging rapidly due to climate change. Animals like rabbits are evolving longer ears to cope with hotter temperatures.
Some birds in the Amazon are becoming smaller to cope with drier conditions. Other birds, who could theoretically help save plants from the climate crisis by transporting their seeds to cooler northern climates, are counterintuitively flying south to hotter environments instead.
In short: animals are transforming and migrating in a number of ways due to climate change — and not all of them are good.
Here’s the solution — With more animals on the move to escape warmer environments during climate change, some scientists are saying we need to reconsider how we consider so-called “invasive” species that are not native to a region.
To be clear: Invasive species are no joke, and can significantly reshape ecosystems around the world, even in remote places like Antarctica.
But as climate change forces animals to move north, some ecologists are suggesting these animals are not invasive species, but, rather, climate refugees. Other scientists suggest invasive species can be reduced or managed, but don’t need to be eliminated entirely.
1. Greenhouse gas emissions are up — but there is a silver lining
Despite greenhouse gas emissions briefly plummeting in spring 2020 due to worldwide lockdowns, by early 2021, NASA’s early 2021 climate data shows that global warming continued unabated, making the past decade the hottest one on record.
As lockdowns ended and global consumption returned, experts predicted that humans will emit 36.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide in 2021. According to the Global Carbon Project, carbon dioxide levels rebounded by 4.9 percent in 2021, with India and China seeing particularly large spikes in coal.
On a slightly positive note: Emissions from the oil industry are lower in 2021 than 2019, and the researchers suggest that overall carbon dioxide emissions may have flattened over the past decade, though these results are still preliminary.
Here’s the solution — The message from climate scientists is loud and clear: We need to shift away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible to save our planet from catastrophe.
On the political level, leaders recently came together at the UN COP26 climate conference to agree to several landmark agreements on reducing fossil fuels, from creating a “Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance” to a global pledge to reduce methane — a significant contributor to carbon emissions.
On a corporate and individual level, some of the most promising efforts to cut fossil fuel emissions are coming in the field of transportation, which accounted for 29 percent of 2019 greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Numerous reports suggest electric vehicles are nearing a “tipping point” to make them more affordable for the masses. As e-bike sales grew 145 percent during 2020 and 2021, that e-cycling trend will also go a long way in taking fossil fuel-guzzling cars off the road.