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Just how tumultuous was 2020 on the climate front? It was a year in which wetlands burned. And beyond the fires that razed South America, Australia and the American West, communities around the world were left reeling from extreme heat, record storms and rising seas. The Times’s Climate desk, with more than a dozen investigative, science, policy and visual journalists, chronicled it all. With 2021 approaching, the Climate editor Hannah Fairfield offered more perspective on what happened, and what lies ahead.
In 2020, we seem to have experienced the beginning of what scientists have been warning about — extreme weather on many fronts and more severe climate-related disasters. You and your team have been covering this all along. But did this year still surprise you?
The year started with fires in Australia, and all year long it seemed as if areas of the globe were aflame, culminating in California’s worst wildfire season and infernos in places that rarely burned. At the same time, there were more major tropical storms in the Atlantic than ever recorded before.
The Climate desk covers all disasters related to climate change, like droughts, wildfires, intense hurricanes and extreme rainfall. The science establishing the direct link between these disasters and the rapid warming of the planet is increasingly clear, but the effects we all saw this year were shocking.
How did that affect coverage?
It was all the more essential that we show readers how different this year was. Because visual storytelling is one of the desk’s strengths, we leaned into that, using data visualizations and mapping, drone photography and video, and interactive design to tell these powerful and very human stories.
Earlier this month, John Branch wrote a lyrical piece about the way many of California’s most beloved and majestic trees — sequoias, redwoods and Joshua trees — were destroyed in the wildfires, and scientists say their survival is threatened as never before. We brought readers the visual evidence of the destruction in a way that no one had before.
2020 was a turning point in many ways, and one of those was the broader realization that the effects of the changing climate are not decades away, they are already here. We can see it all around us. The big question is: How do we make the necessary changes to avoid the worst consequences? It’s absolutely possible. It just takes the will to do it.
Is there a climate issue that, though significant, has yet to fully take hold among the public?
The threat from methane leaking from oil and gas drilling sites is something that we are all only beginning to understand. There are vast amounts of methane — an incredibly potent greenhouse gas — invisible and unchecked, pouring into the atmosphere. In the United States, reporting on these leaks is voluntary by the companies, and the Trump administration has rolled back inspection requirements.
Last year, a climate reporter and a videographer spent weeks in the Permian Basin in Texas using an infrared camera to visually capture the leaks. What they found was astounding. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island cited the reporting on the Senate floor to demand an investigation into industry influence in deregulation.
Satellites that may be able to identify methane leaks are starting to come online, and what they find may be hugely revealing. Oil and gas sites around the world — many of which have been abandoned for decades or more — may be one of the largest unrealized climate threats.
Every year seems to bring its share of dismal climate news. Is there anything that struck you in the past year as a positive, whether it was an innovation or some other development?
Some of the positives from this year were how quickly stories could have impact. One significant visual project we did this year focused on how historical racist housing policies have left a terrible legacy that climate change is now making even worse. Across the nation in the 1930s, federal officials “redlined” certain neighborhoods, marking them as risky investments often solely because residents were Black.
Today, those same neighborhoods are some of the hottest parts of town in the summer. A legacy of disinvestment has left them with fewer trees and lots of heat-trapping pavement. The maps and the data were stark: Some formerly redlined neighborhoods are as much as 12 degrees hotter on average than whiter, wealthier neighborhoods favored for investment in the 1930s. That can mean the difference between an uncomfortably hot day and a deadly hot one.
But because of our story, some of the cities are trying to reverse that. It’s already having a direct impact in Richmond, Va., a city that figured prominently in our reporting. The story was cited by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in a grant it was awarded to plant hundreds of trees in Richmond areas, and Richmond’s mayor unveiled a plan to build five new “green spaces” in hotter areas of the city.
Looking at 2021, what are some of the issues and questions the Climate team will be following closely?
Next year is going to be a huge one for international climate negotiations. Because the 2020 climate summit was canceled, there are big expectations for the next meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, nearly every country in the world committed to the goal of working together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. But the hard work — the really hard work of figuring out how to make those goals happen at an increasingly fast pace — is in the early stages. We’ll be following it.
In a reversal of President Trump’s policies, President-elect Biden plans to re-enter the Paris climate accord and consider climate change part of the leadership of every cabinet position. But he’ll face his own set of challenges. What are some of his biggest?
Mr. Biden’s goal is to get the United States to net zero emissions by 2050. It’s one that other major carbon-emitting countries have also set and that scientists say is necessary to change the current trajectory of warming — basically to flatten the curve.
Right now, the nation is not at all in a position to hit that goal. To reach it, major changes need to happen in the next 10 years. As much as possible needs to become electric: cars, trucks, home and building heating, and big parts of industry. Then, new wind and solar power must be brought online to meet that increased need, and the energy grid needs to grow tremendously to accommodate the new supply. It’s a huge challenge, and the Biden administration will need to figure out how to build the political will to get it done.