01/03/2020 05:45 EST | Updated 01/03/2020 05:55 EST

The 5 Environmental Stories That Could Define 2020

From extreme heat to Greta Thunberg and the youth climate protests — a look at some of the important climate and environmental news stories set to define the new year.

Wildfires, droughts, floods, heat waves, warming seas and melting ice ― it was a year dominated by stories of the unfolding climate crisis.

The science is telling us loud and clear that we have very limited time to tackle the global climate breakdown. But what will 2020 bring? As 2019 bows out with a whimper as far as meaningful international action is concerned, we look at five environmental stories likely to dominate the headlines in the new year as we start to understand more about the crisis we face and how to extract ourselves from it.

1. Air pollution: the silent emergency

Schoolchildren protest outside the Indian Environment Ministry against alarming levels of pollution in New Delhi on Nov. 5, 2019.

It’s getting harder and harder simply to be able to breathe safely. In 2019, hazardous air pollution choked cities around the world from Sydney to San Francisco to Johannesburg.

In Delhi, the situation has become almost apocalyptic. Conditions in the city of nearly 19 million people were “worse than hell,” according to the country’s Supreme Court in November. India has been hit by a record wave of choking air pollution, due to a mix of factors including industrial pollution and farmers burning their crops outside the city, all exacerbated by still, hot weather.

At points, the quality of the air was so toxic that some experts said it was equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes a day.

Because it’s in the air and you can’t see it, it’s sort of an insidious killer.Nicholas Watts, executive director of the Lancet Countdown

Delhi is extreme, but it’s far from the only place where breathing has become hazardous. More than 90% of people globally breathe toxic air. Air pollution contributes to around 7 million deaths a year, according to the landmark Lancet Countdown report on health and climate change published in November.

If people were dying because of “something that was within our water or something that was within our food,” Nicholas Watts, the executive director of the Lancet Countdown, told HuffPost, “there would be global outrage. But because it’s in the air and you can’t see it, it’s sort of an insidious killer.”

The World Health Organization has called it a “silent public health emergency.” Air pollution damages almost every organ in the body, according to a study published in February 2019. It has been linked to a host of health problems including asthma, lung disease, strokes, cancer and mental health problems. Very young children, as well as elderly people, are particularly vulnerable, as are those on lower incomes and communities of color.

A couple at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco wears masks while walking through smoke and haze from wildfires in November 2018.

There is hope, said Watts: We know the solutions, and we have the technology to replace fossil fuels. There are countries around the world already able to run 100% on renewable energy, and, he added, we also have evidence that moving away from fossil fuels makes financial sense too, as it would lift a huge burden from health care systems.

Tackling air pollution brings “almost immediate and substantial effects,” a December study by experts from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies found, including dramatic reductions in asthma, fewer children missing school, fewer heart attacks and fewer premature births.

Dealing with air pollution, said Watts, “is not an engineering question, it’s not an economic or a financial question, it is entirely a question of political choice.”

2. Protest: the rise of the youth climate movement

HuffPost asked five climate scientists what, among all the desperately bleak climate news of 2019, gave them hope. The most consistent response: the energy and momentum of the youth climate movement.

From a solitary Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish Parliament on her first school strike in August 2018, to an estimated 6 million taking to the streets across the globe during the climate strikes in September 2019 ― the movement has grown exponentially in scale.

And they’re having an impact, generating headlines and increasing awareness. Polls show Americans are starting to care more about climate change, with the most important motivator being a desire to “provide a better life for our children and grandchildren.”

However, Thunberg remains frustrated. Speaking to world leaders at the COP25 climate conference in Madrid in December, she said “We have been striking for over a year, and basically nothing has happened. The climate crisis is still being ignored by those in power, and we cannot go on like this.”

She is also trying to shift attention to more marginalized voices who are already facing the brunt of climate change impacts, such as young people from Indigenous communities.

The youth climate movement is not just Thunberg. The Sunrise Movement, set up in 2017 by college students and recent graduates, propelled itself to the forefront of climate activism with a protest outside the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in November 2018 ― in which they were joined by then-Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) ― demanding that the Democratic leader do much more on climate change.

SOPA Images via Getty Images
Protesters during the Sunrise Movement protest in November 2018 outside the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in Washington, D.C., demanding that Democrats support the Green New Deal.

The Sunrise Movement helped popularize the term “Green New Deal.” The idea involves mobilizing resources and society to create a new economy, run on clean energy and green, living-wage jobs. Green New Deal commitments are now in the climate plans of many Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Since its inception as a small grassroots organization, the Sunrise Movement has expanded fast and now has almost 300 chapters across the U.S. The group is turning into a force in the 2020 elections, trying to mobilize the youth vote and endorsing a number of progressive Senate candidates who support the Green New Deal. It also issued a scorecard for the climate proposals of each of the Democrat presidential candidates.

While young people talking about climate change is not new, Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park told Nature, this generation of climate kids is more organized and louder: “Young people are getting so much attention that it draws more young people into the movement.”

We can expect the voices of young climate activists to get louder as we head toward climate crunch dates in 2020.

“They’re making demands on people my age and younger, who have treated this as if it was a routine issue, just a science discussion, just about the planet,” said Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator under President Barack Obama and a public health professor at Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health, “instead of understanding we are fundamentally looking at a challenge that could rob our young people of the opportunity to have a full and rich life.” 

3. Extreme heat: our ever hotter world 

Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us via Getty Images
Women drinking water in the street during the heat wave in Bikaner, Rajasthan, India on July 25, 2019. Temperatures in the state reached more than 123 degrees Fahrenheit in July.

Extreme heat seems to be here to stay. The world experienced blistering temperatures in 2019, with the hottest July ever recorded. It looks all but certain that 2019 will be in the top five hottest years on record.

Human-caused global heating, and the current failure to meaningfully cut emissions, means the heat we experience is likely to become more intense and more frequent.

We see the effects in melting ice, burning forests, warming oceans and heat waves, like the one in France this summer that killed 1,500 people. Qatar has become so hot it has started air conditioning the outside, and record-breaking heat waves in India and Pakistan caused temperatures approaching 124 degrees Fahrenheit in some places.

Heat is the number-one weather killer in the U.S., causing up to 1,500 deaths a year, more deaths than hurricanes, floods or tornadoes. By midcentury, if action isn’t taken, the U.S. can expect the number of days where temperatures exceed 105 degrees to triple.

Those most at risk are the very young and the elderly, but high temperatures also disproportionately affect those already ill, athletes, pregnant women, those who work outside and people on low incomes.

A construction worker drinks a bottle of water while working on a site in Rancho Cordova, California.

“It’s so insidious in that it affects pretty much most segments of society,” Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told HuffPost.

Heat can have devastating impacts on the body, including heat stress, heat stroke and links to chronic kidney disease. It exacerbates existing conditions such as heart and respiratory diseases. It can also lead to premature births, which can have a significant impact on the long-term health of the child.

“Extreme heat is among the deadliest weather hazards society faces,” reads the “Killer Heat” report published by the UCS. “It is possible [heat extremes] will affect daily life for the average U.S. resident more than any other facet of climate change.”

The solutions are twofold, says Licker: We need to cut emissions as quickly as possible to prevent further increases in extreme heat. And we need to adapt to what’s already happening by having plans on how to keep people safe.

Extreme heat, she adds, “is one of the first signals that we’re really seeing of climate change and one of the things that, on the flip side, we could do a lot about very quickly.”

4. The Amazon: a desperate fight for survival

NurPhoto via Getty Images
A fire in the Amazon rainforest in rural Novo Progresso, Para, Brazil, in August 2019. August saw the highest rates of forest destruction and burnings in the last nine years.

The Amazon rainforest is in crisis. As the smoke starts to clear from the wildfires that ripped through the biodiversity hot spot, the damage is becoming clear.

Under the watch of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who swept to power in 2018 on pledges to open the Amazon up to business, the Amazon has lost nearly 3,800 square miles of forest cover through July 2019. And the destruction looks set to continue as Bolsonaro works to make it easier for soy, cattle, timber and mining companies to raze swaths of forest.

From January to July of 2019, deforestation rose 67% year over year. There were more than 80,000 fires in the Amazon in 2019 ― up 75% over the previous year ― many of which are blamed on burning rainforest to clear the land for agriculture and industry.

The largest rainforest in the world is more than 2 million square miles in size, covers around 40% of South America and tracks through eight countries, with 60% in Brazil. It’s a crucial ecosystem, home to 10% of the world’s biodiversity and supporting not only the Indigenous populations who have lived there for generations, and who now face increased displacement and violence, but all of us.

The rainforest stores carbon dioxide ― almost 100 billion tons of carbon a year, equivalent to 10 years of global emissions ― making it a vital natural buffer against climate change.

Aerial view of burned areas near Moraes Almeida, a town along a section of the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Itaituba, Para, Brazil, in September 2019.

This year is set to be a vital one. We will discover whether elevated levels of destruction are a blip or whether they are part of an upward trend that could seal the fate of the whole ecosystem.

Scientists worry that we are rapidly approaching a tipping point, where levels of destruction push the Amazon to a place from which it cannot recover. Rainforest will become savanna, releasing billions of ton of carbon dioxide and rapidly escalating the climate crisis. It’s estimated that this tipping point will come when between 20% to 25% of the rainforest is destroyed. Some experts, including acclaimed Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre, believe that 17% of the Amazon has been lost so far.

“The Amazon is at great risk of destruction and with it the wellbeing of our generation and generations to come,” wrote more than 40 Latin American climatologists in September in a paper presented at a conference in the Vatican.

5. Elections: the U.S. heads to the voting booth

Erik McGregor via Getty Images
Hundreds of climate activists gathered outside CNN studios on Sept. 4, 2019, before the presidential candidates' climate change forum, to demand they commit to bold climate actions now.

America’s presidential election is a climate story. Time is running out to put the brakes on catastrophic climate change, and whoever is in the White House in 2021 will have a huge role to play. The reelection of Donald Trump ― who has consistently denied the climate crisis, rolled back environmental protections and plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement ― would make the radical international action needed to turn the crisis around seem extraordinarily unlikely.

Climate change has become a leading issue in the U.S. elections, marking a sharp shift from recent elections in which it has generally been dealt with as a niche side issue. Around 7 in 10 Americans (69%) think climate change is happening, more than half understand it’s human-caused, and around 6 in 10 are at least “somewhat worried” about its impacts, according to a Yale survey in April. Support is very high among Democrats. A CNN poll in April 2019 found that climate change was a “very important election” issue for 82% of them.

Democratic presidential hopefuls have rolled out their plans to tackle the crisis, many based on the concept of a Green New Deal. And in September, Democratic presidential hopefuls spent seven hours debating climate change policies at a CNN town hall on the topic.

Even Republicans and right-wing news organizations are starting to talk about climate change, although some experts warn this may not be a good thing. In November, Fox News host Tucker Carlson used his professed climate concern to make anti-immigrant statements: “Isn’t crowding your country the fastest way to despoil it, to pollute it, to make it, you know, a place you wouldn’t want to live?” For some, this marks a worrying echo of eco-fascism ― where environmental arguments are used to further fascist aims.

As we hurtle toward November, the month the U.S. would formally exit the Paris agreement and the month of COP26, the critical annual international climate conference, climate change looks set to remain firmly on the election agenda.

What are we missing from the list? Let us know what other environmental stories are likely to be big news in 2020. Email us here or post in the comments. 

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