THE BACKGROUND: Melting glaciers, deadly flooding in Germany, record summer temperatures in generally mild Oregon, more urgent appeals for help from Pacific island nations. With increasing urgency, the effects of climate change have been felt all over the world in 2021.
A United Nations climate conference in Glascow, Scotland, in November – called COP26 – ended with nearly 200 countries agreeing to a compromise to keep a key global warming goal alive, but which contained a last minute change that watered down the language about phase-out. coal.
While many countries complained that the deal had not gone far enough or fast enough, they said it was better than nothing and allowed for incremental progress.
Here, some Associated Press reporters involved in the coverage reflect on the story and their own experiences.
SETH BORENSTEIN, science writer, Washington, DC:
COP26 kind of leaves us where we were before. There’s a little more effort to try to control emissions, a lot more promises to get things done. But many of those promises are still based on the future. These net promises to zero by 2050, 2060 – these are promises made by leaders who will not be alive when their promises come due.
It was also an interesting year where you had a major climate report in August. But more than anything, it is yet another year when climate change continues to appear in extreme weather conditions all over the world. But this year, maybe a little more in the western countries, richer than in the past: in Germany, in Belgium, horrible floods in Tennessee, places like that. And not to mention the wildfires and 116 degree (47 Celsius) heat in Portland, Oregon. I mean, if you had to pick one weird thing, the Pacific Northwest is known for its smoothness, but there are records and then there are records, and theirs are so far off the scale that your eyes come out. And that’s what Portland was.
Rich countries are not exempt. But when you’re rich, you can run away from it more easily. You can withstand extreme weather conditions when you are in the Global North much better than you can in the South. But then there are extremes which are so great that wealth cannot help you that much.
And so that’s one of the problems with adaptation: the rich countries of the world can, and the poor countries cannot. And that was one of the main issues we saw in Scotland at the conference. What we saw … is that kind of combination of hope because nations were saying the right thing and promising the right thing to do that would help reduce emissions in the future. More than they ever have. And yet temperatures are still rising, extremes are getting even worse. So you kind of have that combination of optimism – and there was a lot of optimism there – and also a harsh reality slapping yourself in the face. And you would ping pong from “Oh, that looks promising” to “Oh my God”.
FRANK JORDANS, correspondent, Berlin:
Thinking about the peculiarity of covering the climate this year, I was struck by the fact that normally covering climate change from Germany is a bit like covering a war 100 miles from the front line, is not it ? Because you sort of think all the action is happening elsewhere. And it is certainly true that most of the most serious impacts occur in the countries of what is called the Global South. Or the Far North, because it heats up much faster than anywhere else.
But this year we had two events in Germany which were really quite significant. One of them was a Supreme Court ruling in April here in Germany. Basically, the court ruled that the government had not done enough to chart the course the country must follow if it is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to meet these Paris targets. And the judges basically said they were putting too much pressure on the younger generation, pushing too much beyond 2030. And they said it was actually a restriction on the freedoms of the younger generation. … The Supreme Court justices here have actually said that if we do not tackle climate change, fundamental freedoms will be impeded. And in saying that, it was a hugely important moment that could change the course of how future governments view things.
The second was those floods that Seth mentioned in Germany and Belgium. Granted, there is occasional flooding here, but nothing to do with what we saw in July. And while some people said, well, we should have seen it coming, really, the general population was not prepared for it. And it really woke people up to see almost 200 people killed in a matter of hours and entire villages swept away. In a country like Germany, I mean, they can afford to rebuild, but it’s still billions (in damage) in a devastating flood.
NOAH BERGER, photographer, San Francisco:
I’ve been a press photographer for 26 years, so I had a bunch of forest fires here and there. But really, 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite was the first that allowed me to focus on this specialty. I went there and spent a few days there with a colleague from Getty, we were riding and I loved being there.
In California, we have press access to emergency areas. …. So when I started it was more about how close you could get because I didn’t have all the tools I have now. It was harder to know the right places to be, but it was a powerful experience. And after that, I said, that’s what I want to do with my summers and my falls. And every year since then, I’ve really increased the equipment I use, the knowledge I have, the interactions with the firefighters. Whether it’s something physical, like a carbon monoxide detector for the car or a fire shelter, or a better understanding of firefighting techniques.
Each year I have increased my knowledge of fire. And it has worked well, as our fires have also escalated incredibly. Every year since then, with a few exceptions, you’ve only seen new superlatives: more homes, more lives lost, more intensity. Especially since 2015.
It is easy to interact with the firefighters. I am dressed like a firefighter. I know the lingo. You know I stop and they know I’m not a firefighter, but I fit in too. … I still struggle with (civilians). I mean, we’re going to someone, and usually it’s someone fleeing their home as the flames descend, in immediate danger or returning to their razed home. And it’s really hard to approach people as a human. You know it’s one of the worst days of their lives and you’re like, “Hey, can I go out with you? “
I think the intensity has been surprising to all of us, and how much it has increased. I don’t know what percentage you can put on climate change, what percentage on PG&E, what percentage on bark beetle mortality, which was part of the drought here, where a lot of trees are very flammable and combustible. But it is quite indisputable that the fires have definitely intensified. I think you could research the exact number. But, according to CalFire, our state firefighting agency, 15 of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires have occurred in the past six years. This is a very striking statistic. I’ve only been doing this for eight years and have covered 14 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California history.
For a full look at the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos”, a collection of AP photos and journalist memorabilia, is available now: https: // www. ap.org/books / a-year-that-changed-us
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