Debate is over: the 5 biggest climate stories of 2013

December 30, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

With each passing year, the climate crisis deepens. Carbon dioxide’s concentration in the atmosphere ticks ever-upwards. At the same time, the reality of what humanity is up against begins to set in. In 2013 it became nearly impossible to ignore. Coming off the heels of Hurricane Sandy, this year cemented the urgency of climate calamity. Consensus among climate scientists was firmer than ever. Media finally seemed to settle the “debate” and stop perpetuating false balance. Leaders (albeit with some notable exceptions) openly discussed climate change outside the focus-grouped parameters of green jobs. United States President Barack Obama set the stage by putting climate change front-and-center in his second inaugural address. Reflecting on a year in which climate change finally began to receive the attention it deserves in public discourse, here are my top five climate stories of 2013:


1. 400 parts per million 

Largely symbolic as it may be, this story may be the legacy of 2013. In fifteen years when we look back at milestones, it’ll be there. On May 10, measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reached 400 parts per million. Granted it is a completely arbitrary round number. But it matters. Reaching it matters.

When you’re trying to meet an agreed-upon target of 350ppm and it continually ticks ever-higher, the difference between 397 and 400ppm is psychologically significant. This milestone carries a sense of urgency. And that was clear in 2013. It was a year in which the world seemed to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening (save for the Liberal Party of Australia). Acting on climate change suddenly became politically possible. Failing brought a sense of shame. Dialling back this number, reversing its upward charge, finally became a focus this year rather than an eventuality. 


2. IPCC’s fifth assessment report

Part one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report, regarding the physical science basis of greenhouse gas warming, was released in September. It was about as categorical as science allows. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” read the report. “Human influence on the climate system is clear.”

The world’s authoritative body on climate change increased their confidence that mankind is responsible for a majority of warming from “very likely” to “extremely likely” – meaning they were more than 95 per cent sure. The Associated Press pointed out what that level of scientific certainty meant. With the release of this report, scientists were as sure of anthropogenic climate change as public health experts are sure that cigarettes are deadly and physicists that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

Deniers were defeated. Aside from conspiracy theorists claiming the IPCC was a shadowy cabal of power-hungry radical environmentalists, nobody could make their case. Finally climate deniers would be publicly ridiculed instead of voted into office. Governor Terry McAuliffe’s high-profile win in Virgnia signalled the debate was over among voters


3. Typhoon Haiyan

Nothing could have solidified public opinion on climate change like the tragic storm which hit the Philippines in November. Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda locally) claimed thousands of lives. Sustained winds of 315 kilometers per hour and gusts up to 378 pummeled the island archipelago nation and a storm surge of 4.5 to six meters swept across some of the hardest-hit areas. Images of utter destruction were beamed around the world and connecting the dots to climate change was easy.

The Philippines is the third most vulnerable country to consequences of a warming climate. Considering the worst damage came from the immense storm surge in Tacloban, the influence of rising sea levels was clear. Warming waters are also likely contributing to more powerful hurricanes and typhoons.

Haiyan had the highest wind speeds on record when it made landfall. Most striking about the storm, though, was its devastating effect on one of the world’s poorest nations. New York bounced back quickly from Superstorm Sandy, but the disproportionate damage in the Philippines would endure. This was a “perfect storm” to reveal the inherent inequality of climate change. Concepts of climate justice began to permeate in the world’s media. Not only does a warming world hurt poor and marginalized people more so than those who can afford to cope. These forgotten folks are also the ones who have hardly contributed to global carbon emissions.

With haunting coincidence in a cruel twist of fate, Typhoon Haiyan struck just as delegates in Warsaw were arriving for the 19th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19). Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Saño urged the body to act to “stop this maddness.” 


4. COP19 in Warsaw

Yet another year passed without the workings of a climate deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2015. Hopes weren’t high for COP19 in the weeks leading up to Warsaw. No clear path existed to a comprehensive climate agreement by the end. Developed nations like Canada, Australia and Japan backed off their already meager commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Both the G77+China countries and environmental groups walked out of the conference in frustration at the lack of progress.

Despite Typhoon Haiyan’s tragic illustration of the urgency of the matter, talks ended as usual, with a barely passable last-minute deal. Wishy washy promises and vague consternations in the final agreement were overwhelmingly regarded as a failure. Even the supposed sole saving grace of the conference, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, was criticized as being the bare minimum that would have been accepted by all parties. It committed to providing both technological and financial assistance to poorer nations, but details were minimal.

Accepting liability for the consequences of climate change is an unlikely prospect for developed countries. Warsaw made this clear. Attempts to hold countries to account for the effects of their emissions were left out of the agreement. As was a road map towards a legally-binding agreement in Paris in 2015.


5. US-China cooperation

Accounting together for 40 per cent of global carbon emissions, no effort to combat climate change could commence without the United States and China taking the lead. Earth’s top two economies and its top two emitters announced this year they would work together. In July, the nations put together five bilateral initiatives to: reduce emissions from heavy vehicles; work on carbon capture, utilization and storage; make gains in energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transport; improve collection and management of greenhouse gas data; and promote smart grids to power their cities.

It may seem mundane, but its significance is huge. Decisions these two nations make reverberate across the world. Research, design and manufacturing will all be affected by this push for better technology. More subtly, it signals other countries to undertake their own efforts without fear they wont be able to compete. Politically it begins to bridge the developing-developed nation divide, showing all countries can and must take action. It allows the two countries to live up to their leadership role and stresses to others that they need to play ball.