Climate change had a big year, from Greta Thunberg to Australia's fires

Commentary: Leaders keep ignoring the science, and this is not fine.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

I think about the "This Is Fine" dog a lot. You know the one: Animated yellow dog, staring into the middle distance, cup of coffee in its hand, engulfed by flames. In the original webcomic, a 2013 six-panel piece by artist KC Green, the dog does nothing to avert the obviously catastrophic situation it finds itself in. Instead, it remarks "This is fine" as its skin melts away and its eyeballs seep out of its head like goo.

In 2019, it seems prescient. But the fire isn't contained to one tiny room anymore.

Now the world is on fire. In July, the Earth sweltered through its hottest month on record. The Amazon roasted in August, with more than 80,000 fires reported in Brazil alone. California was ablaze in November, cutting power and forcing residents to flee their homes. The Arctic burned. Australia suffered through unprecedented bushfires. The record books are being constantly updated.

Despite this, carbon emissions, primarily from the fossil fuel industry, continue to rise across the globe, with no signs of slowing down. If we are to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, things need to change dramatically. And yet many huge emitters are not on track to meet their 2030 pledges as set out by the United Nations. Against the backdrop of fire and smoke, leaders of the biggest carbon emitting nations in the world seemingly just sip their coffees and put their feet up.

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In KC Green's 2013 comic, the dog eventually melts away in the fire.

KC Green/Gunshow

This is fine

But in 2019 there was something of a reckoning. It arrived in the form of a pig-tailed, 16-year-old girl with a two-by-two cardboard sign. In striking black letters, her sign read: "Skolstrejk fӧr klimatet." Starting in August 2018, Greta Thunberg began this "School Strike For Climate," sign in hand, sitting on the concrete outside the Swedish parliament, demanding action on climate change. She drew worldwide attention. By the end of 2018, students had held strikes in over 270 cities across the world.

It was the beginning of a movement that continued to gather momentum through the year. In September, 7 million people took to the streets again for global climate protests, timed to coincide with the United Nations Climate Action Summit. The protests saw Thunberg, and other student activists around the world, pleading with policymakers and governments to combat the climate crisis.

Thunberg's movement saw her named Time's Person of the Year in 2019. More importantly, it inspired discussions around climate change, the technology to combat it and the political discussions to escalate, becoming more urgent and more aggressive. The language began to change. We stopped talking about climate change and started talking about the climate crisis. States, countries and scientists declared a "climate emergency," leading the Oxford Dictionary to award the term its word of the year, as usage soared 10,796%.

This is not fine.

Firebreather

It's not fine, and I'm struggling to breathe.

As CNET's science editor, I spend many hours a month reading climate change studies, but for the first time in my life, I can feel the effects of climate change. I can look out my window and see them in the thick, gray smoke clouds settling over the horizon.

After bushfires torched 164,000 hectares of forest north west of Sydney in November, a dense veil of smoke blanketed the city for weeks. In the harbor, the white sails of the Opera House were consumed by a veil of smoke and the steel beams of the Harbour Bridge seemed to fade into the haze.

Former fire service chief Greg Mullins warned Australia's federal government the 2019 bushfire season could be "catastrophic" in April and again in May, suggesting climate change had worsened drought conditions and could cause mega fires the service "just can't put out." By spring, those fires started burning. It's now the middle of summer. They are still burning.

Scarily, this feels like the new normal. As the planet gets hotter, it makes extreme climate events like the bushfires more and more likely. The new normal is already inspiring changes in my daily life. I interact with my phone in a completely new way checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) three or four times a day, hoping the particle pollution is rated as anything other than "hazardous." I'm not alone, either. When the bushfires began in early November, Google saw a dramatic spike in searches for "air quality."

Living and working in the inner city has been giving me (and countless others) mild respiratory trouble, but it's nothing compared with where the fires have been raging. Hundreds have lost their homes. Six people lost their lives.

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The Sydney Opera House, blanketed by smoke.

James D. Morgan/Getty

As the crisis worsened, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pushed the climate crisis to the side. "There is a time and a place to debate controversial issues and important issues, right now it's important to focus on the needs of Australians who need our help," he said in November. In December, as the intensity and scale of the fires continued to increase, Morrison fled, reportedly taking a business class flight to Hawaii for a holiday.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, slammed those raising concerns about climate change during the crisis, calling senators from the left Greens party "inner-city raving lunatics."

Many of those who had lost their homes did not agree, protesting outside New South Wales' Parliament House with buckets of ash in their hand days after the statement was made. After tipping the charred remains of his two-bedroom home onto the ground, one protestor declared that now was exactly the time to be talking about climate change.

Those protesters don't believe the carbon dioxide we're pumping into the air started the fires. But they believe it is exacerbating them. Climate change is making the bushfire season longer. Practically every piece of tech we've devoted to studying the climate crisis says the same thing. Still, it seems many politicians disagree.

In the wake of the bushfires, Morrison said there was no scientific evidence linking the bushfires with carbon emissions and climate change. There is.

And former deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, claimed the fires were the result of changes in the sun's magnetic field. At best, that's poor understanding of the science. At worst, it's a blatant lie.

None of this is fine.

Climate culture war

This year the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released two special reports focused on how climate change affects the land and how climate change affects the oceans and cryosphere. In May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a damning analysis of the world's ecosystems, suggesting the climate crisis could leave up to 1 million species extinct.

More dire warnings were heard during the UN Climate Change Summit in September and December's Climate Change Conference in Madrid. Every week -- no, every day -- there is a new peer-reviewed scientific paper in the world's most prestigious science journals. The pages of Nature, Science, The Lancet and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences are stacked with new reports, revised estimates and terrifying models of future calamity.

All this research features the expertise of hundreds of scientists, technologists and researchers, using tens of thousands of sources to provide the most comprehensive, up-to-the-minute examination of the planet we can muster. They keep gathering data, it keeps telling them the same things. There is a consensus: Humans are accelerating global warming.

"The world is not ending due to climate change," says Katrin Meissner, director of the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New South Wales. "The planet will survive and life on the planet will survive. But ... climate change will endanger health, livelihoods, food security, drinking water supply, and ecosystems.

"The changes won't be easily reversible, some will certainly be irreversible on the timescales of human lives, and the changes won't necessarily happen smoothly."

Almost as soon as scientists began sounding the alarm, science has been under attack. We're in an age of climate denialism and the battleground is the internet. In 2019, it is awash with climate denialism and misinformation. You only need to read the comments on CNET's coverage of the Amazon fires, or our reporting on the latest climate research, to see the extent of the pushback. My Gmail inbox is tortured. Facebook posts, Twitter threads and TikTok videos are war zones.

Worryingly, over the past 12 months, we've seen those attacks come not just from message boards and anonymous Twitter users, but from some of the most powerful people in the world.

Arguments have been weaponized on both sides of the political spectrum. US President Donald Trump is taking jabs at Greta Thunberg on Twitter, sarcastically describing her as a "very happy young girl looking forward to a bright future." Extinction Rebellion activists shut down the London Underground in October, leading to nasty clashes with commuters and law enforcement. It's no longer believers versus denialists -- it's left versus right.

In 2019, the climate crisis has become firmly entrenched as a battleground in the never-ending culture wars. Environmental policies are being wound back in the US, Brazil and China. The US has pulled out of the UN Paris Agreement that calls for nations to plan and mitigate the effects of global warming.

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Greta Thunberg has continued to call for action on climate change, taking her sign on a global tour.

Fabrice Coffrini/Getty

Carbon emissions are irrelevant. Glacier collapse is trivial. Rising sea levels are being ignored. Science and technology is dying a slow death and faith is being eroded by politicians looking to score points over their opposition. It's been happening for years, but in 2019 it was more obvious than ever.

When Thunberg spoke before the US congress in September, her message was simple: "I don't want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists."

The overwhelming majority of those scientists make it crystal clear: Unless we reduce our emissions -- dramatically and rapidly -- we will find ourselves living on a planet hotter than ever before. The next decade looms as one of the most important to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). We have the technology to do so. We have the means. 

We are only just beginning to understand what a hotter Earth looks like, the extreme weather events we will experience, the health problems that will arise and the vast changes to the land and the ocean the children will inherit.

In 2019, their voices swelled. They started shouting. They took placards and signs and descended upon government buildings, parks, streets and cities. Their message was resoundingly clear.

This is not fine.

Originally published Dec. 23.