2019 review: The year the world woke up to climate change

The final year of the decade has seen the issue of climate change rise to prominence, with nations declaring climate emergencies and thousands taking to the streets in a mass call for action.

Indeed, the sorry saga of Brexit aside, the climate issue has been the biggest story of 2019, capturing the attention of the public and hitting the headlines more than ever before.

This has been in no small part thanks to the millions of young people who chose to strike, march and protest as part of a global movement inspired by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg.

In Scotland, the first school strike was reported in The Herald in February as around 40 pupils skipped school to protest outside Holyrood in a bid to get politicians to take action.

At that demonstration, Leith Academy pupil Iola Wallace, 12, said she wanted people to “stop and listen to the earth”.

From those 40 pupils at the first Scottish protest, the numbers grew exponentially, with hundreds taking to the streets just a week later and, by September, thousands marching through Glasgow and Edinburgh accompanied by adults, celebrities and members of activist group Extinction Rebellion.

Their efforts on September 20 supported a global call for action as millions across the world took to the streets in a mass movement demanding that their governments, politicians, employers and businesses do more tackle the problem.

Dylan Hamilton, a member of Scottish Youth Climate Strike, who helped organise the global strike, told reporters: “We are making history by standing up for our future. The people have protested, we marched and then we rallied. We have made our position clear; the Government needs to act for the future of humanity.”

Many politicians praised the young protestors, describing them as “inspirational” and their actions saw the Scottish Government pledge to do more to tackle the crisis.

In April, Nicola Sturgeon declared a “climate emergency” in her speech to the SNP party conference and pledged that Scotland would “live up to our responsibility to tackle it”.

The following month, the SNP abolished its plans to cut air departure tax from Scottish Airports as it was “no longer compatible” with its climate targets, while a Bill to introduce a “net-zero” target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 – five years earlier than the rest of the UK – was also passed at Holyrood in September.

A Labour amendment to increase the interim target of a 75% reduction by 2030 was also approved.

The Climate Change Bill also included a pledge to hold a citizens’ assembly on how to tackle the issue.

All of this action in Scotland came in a year where the impact of climate change was felt fiercely around the world.

Across the globe, extreme weather in the form of floods, heatwaves and wildfires wreaked havoc, forcing around 20 million people to flee their homes, according to Oxfam.

The charity claims that people are now seven times more likely to be displaced by climate-related events than war or conflict, with those in poorer countries the worst affected.

Researchers for the charity also found that the number of weather disasters considered extreme has grown five-fold over the last decade.

This year saw extreme heatwaves in many parts of the world, with July 2019 declared as the hottest month on record for the planet.

At the time the record-breaking temperatures were revealed, Friends of the Earth Scotland climate campaigner Caroline Rance said: “This is the latest in a worrying long-term trend of rising and record-breaking temperatures, with seemingly every year breaking temperature records only recently set.

“Not only was this the warmest July ever, but it included the warmest day ever recorded on the Greenland ice sheet – causing billions of tons of ice to melt into the ocean and raise sea levels.”

Wildfires also spread in several countries, with fires raging in the Amazon throughout 2019 destroying an estimated 906 thousand hectares of the rainforest.

More than 8000 people were also forced to flee their homes in Spain’s Canary Islands as a result of wildfires, while bushfires currently raging in Australia are expected to last for up to a month and California also recently suffered from fires.

Floods also devastated parts of the UK, with Yorkshire and Humber, the East Midlands, West Midlands and parts of the South East of England all experiencing widespread damage in November.

Flooding was also experienced in many other parts of the world.

A report published by the UN in September also warned that the risk of flooding looks set to increase as sea level rises accelerate.

The research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that levels could rise by about 1ft to 2ft by 2100 if greenhouse gases are rapidly cut and by 2ft to 3ft if emissions still increase.

The report stated that annual coastal flood damages are projected to increase 100 to 1,000 times by 2100, and some island nations are “likely to become uninhabitable” due to climate change.

Meanwhile, The Herald reported in July that “Earth Overshoot Day”, the point in the year when the world’s population has consumed more resources than the plant can sustainably regenerate, was at its earliest point in history.

The date of July 29 was the earliest the annual marker has ever occurred, as it moved up by two months over the past 20 years.

In September it was revealed that Glasgow has been chosen to host nest year’s UN climate change conference, COP26.

The event – described as the most important gathering on climate change since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015 – will see scores of heads of government, as well as up to 30,000 delegates, converging on Scotland’s largest city to draw up a new strategy.

At the time it was confirmed, Scotland’s Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: “It is right that this conference should come to Scotland given our leadership in climate action.

“Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to acknowledge the global climate emergency and the Scottish Government has introduced the toughest targets in the UK to ensure our action matches the scale of our climate ambitions.

“We look forward to working collaboratively with partners to deliver an ambitious and effective conference that ensures Scotland plays a leading role to help promote the increased global effort to tackle climate change.”

Meanwhile, this year’s conference in Madrid has just recently come to an end, with delegates agreeing that all countries will need to put new climate pledges on the table by the time of the Glasgow conference.

However, divisions over other questions – including carbon markets – were delayed.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was disappointed by the result, while Laurence Tubiana from the European Climate Foundation, and an architect of the Paris agreement, described the result as “really a mixed bag, and a far cry from what science tells us is needed.”

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