The Most Important Climate Change Stories of 2013

The U.S. solar industry grew up, hurricane season flamed out, and the president drew a line in the sand.

climate change

Environmental activists outside in Stockholm, Sweden demand immediate political action on climate debate on Sept. 27. (Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

Global warming was hot news this year—literally.

Be it the slow creep of the fossil fuel divestment program across America, so-called climate hawks flexing their muscles at the polls in November, or President Obama dragging his feet on a Keystone XL pipeline decision, climate change stories at times dominated the news cycle in 2013, the seventh hottest year since record keeping began in 1850.
 
Here are the 8 biggest climate stories of the past 12 months.

1. The IPCC Sounded the Alarm; the World Hit the Snooze Button

In September the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth major report on climate change, drawing ever-stronger connections between our burning of fossil fuels and our warming world.

“It is extremely likely [95 percent probability] that human activity was the dominant cause of climate change observed since the 1950s,” the group concluded.

In response, world leaders largely yawned.

We’re putting this story at the top to remind you that it happened.

2. One Man Went Hungry, but World Leaders Didn’t Listen

In October, just days after Typhoon Haiyan’s storm surge killed 6,000 and left millions homeless in the Philippines, Yeb Saño, the head of the country’s delegation to COP 19, kicked off the two-week climate change conference with a memorable, heartfelt plea.

“I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves,” Saño said in a video that went viral. “We can take drastic actions now to prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life.”

(While scientists cannot conclusively link climate change to any single weather event, because typhoons and hurricanes convert warm seawater into wind energy, it is likely that a warming world will create bigger and stronger storms in years to come.)

He continued his critique, saying, “We cannot solve climate change when we seek to spew more emissions…. By failing to meet the objectives of the convention, we have ratified to meet our own doom.”

Saño then announced he was beginning a hunger strike, pledging not to eat “until a meaningful outcome is in sight.” In addition to emissions cuts, he sought the implementation of a Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries, such as the Philippines, adapt to climate change.

Did Saño’s nearly two-week-long strike—during which he only drank water and reportedly lost a pound and a half—yield any results?

The convention ended with no emissions reduction agreement between countries, and while the Green Climate Fund opened its headquarters in early December, it is vastly underfunded, with just $40 million of a $100 billion target goal in hand. Many wealthy nations have not paid up as pledged.

3. U.S. Solar Grows Up Before Our Eyes

For solar watchers, 2013 was an exceptionally sunny year.

In January the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group of investor-owned utilities, published a little-discussed paper that essentially predicted the death spiral of the U.S. electricity grid. Why? Because it simply keeps getting cheaper for Americans to install solar panels on the roofs of their homes.

Utilities are fighting back with plans to penalize free riders who install solar panels, but they’ve lost in Georgia and battled to a draw in Arizona.

Combined with utility-scale projects, the U.S. gained a total of 930 megawatts of photovoltaic solar capacity, a 35 percent gain from the previous year. 

The cherry on top of all this sunny news is that the world’s largest solar plant is scheduled to open in the California desert before the first of the year.

4. Obama (Finally) Acts

After staying largely mum on the issue during the 2012 presidential election, President Obama delivered a major speech on climate change in June at Georgetown University. In laying out a second-term plan to limit carbon pollution that contributes to global warming, he told students he refused to "condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing."

Knowing there was (and is) almost zero appetite in Congress for tackling climate change, Obama pledged to go it alone through powers afforded him by executive order.

In September Obama’s EPA released its draft rules to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants and set up a climate change adaptation task force. In early December he ordered federal agencies to lead by example and get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

Critics, including famed environmentalist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, point to his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy: calling for expanded Arctic offshore drilling, defending fracking, and expanding coal development on public lands.

5. Divestment Goes National

Over the past year, the grassroots fossil fuel divestment movement gained considerable momentum, sweeping across more than 400 U.S. college campuses, where student groups passed resolutions calling for their schools’ trustees to sell holdings in oil, gas, and coal firms.

Still, the divestment strategy—which helped end South African apartheid in 1994—has mostly been met with resistance by major American colleges, including Harvard University, which wrote that the school is “an academic institution,” not “a political actor.”

6. Climate Hawks Spend Big, Win Big, in the Political Arena

Across the U.S., greens poured millions of dollars into 2013’s off-year elections to influence such issues as coal exports and natural gas fracking.

In most cases, they won.

The state of Washington featured one of the most important races for environmental groups. The Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund raised more than $670,000, funneling it into a county council election to support officials perceived as opposed to a $600 million coal export terminal in the region. Environmental groups outspent the coal industry 4–1, helping elect council members sympathetic to their campaign to stop coal exports.

California billionaire and climate hawk Tom Steyer poured $8 million into the Virginia gubernatorial race in support of eventual winner Terry McAuliffe. The League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club also put more than $2 million into the race, helping McAuliffe defeat vociferous climate denier Ken Cuccinelli.

7. Wither Thy Hurricane?

Given that 2013 was the seventh-hottest year since record keeping began in 1850, it baffled experts that this year’s Atlantic Ocean hurricane season, which ended Nov. 30, was the sixth-least active since 1950. Of the 13 named storms that formed in the Atlantic in 2013, only two became hurricanes. And only Tropical Storm Andrea made landfall in the U.S.

Atmospheric scientists say it will be months before they understand what happened, but early indication points to a weakened African jet stream—a key factor in the formation of Atlantic hurricanes—as the cause. Typically, the jet stream moves west across the Atlantic Ocean at 20 to 25 mph; this year’s averaged only 8 mph.

8. The Pipeline Story That Wasn’t

The Keystone XL pipeline approval saga entered its fifth year in much the same state as it spent its fourth: protests outside Obama events, accusations of corruption and cronyism in the State Department, and no decision yet from the president.

If approved, the pipeline will carry diluted bitumen from Canadian tar sands fields through six U.S. states to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Its proponents, including the Canadian government and most congressional Republicans, say the oil will get here regardless of whether it’s shipped by pipeline or by rail, that the pipeline will create thousands of temporary construction jobs, and that it will lower American gasoline prices.

Environmentalists have evidence to counter each of those points and want to keep the tar sands in the ground. Their argument is relatively straightforward: “Emissions from developing the tar sand—through mining or steam heating out of the ground followed by upgrading for shipment—are more harmful than those that come from extracting the most conventional crude oil.”

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