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The Forces Shaping 2023

If the past is prologue, then the tempestuous year that was 2022 should be seen as a guide to what happens to our climate-changed world in the year ahead.

We are in a strange, unsettling purgatory. It’s clear that the world has slowed down the pace of warming since the Paris accord was established in 2015. But it’s also clear that the forces resisting change are powerful, and that the world remains on track to blow past relatively safe warming thresholds.

In 2022 came seven transformative developments. They are certain to shape what’s to come in 2023.

War scrambled the global energy landscape.

Russia used its fossil fuel riches to fund its invasion of Ukraine. It went on to use its oil and natural gas as a weapon, thoroughly upending the global energy landscape. The war drove up the prices of almost everything else that needs energy to be produced and shipped around the world, including, most alarmingly, food.

Europe faced a reckoning. Having relied so much on Russian gas for light and heat, European Union lawmakers scrambled in 2022 to find alternate sources of energy. The world’s gas producers were all too happy to comply, including the United States, the world’s largest gas exporter, which promised to ship liquefied natural gas for many years to come.

Watch what happens in 2023. Will Europe build more pipelines and more gas import terminals to lock in reliance on hydrocarbons for electricity and heat? Or will Russia’s war in Ukraine speed its shift to renewables?

The International Energy Agency said there were signs that the energy crisis could act as an “accelerant” to a clean energy transition, only to caution that “even in a world of high and volatile fossil fuel prices, it cannot be taken for granted that today’s cost advantages for clean, efficient equipment will translate into more sustainable investment choices.”

In the meantime, though, Europeans are suffering. Lights are dimmed in many European cities, including Paris. In Britain, high energy bills are forcing people to sit it out in cold, damp homes.

Oil and gas made a killing.

Even as the war laid out the strategic risks of relying on fossil fuels, oil and gas producers made record profits as demand surged for oil and gas from anywhere but Russia. Net income in the sector is expected to reach a record $4 trillion in 2022, double that of the previous year, according to the I.E.A. The consulting firm Deloitte has projected increases in natural gas investment in 2023.

Democracy delivered two tipping-point elections.

In May, Australians ousted the conservative coalition that had made one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries also among the most recalcitrant when it came to reducing its emissions of planet-warming gases. The new government, led by the Labor Party, passed a law requiring Australia to sharply cut its emissions by 2030 and then a budget to ramp up renewable energy.

In October, Brazilians rejected their incumbent, climate-science-denying president, Jair Bolsonaro. Newly elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is to be inaugurated on Jan. 1. Reining in Amazon deforestation will be one of his biggest challenges.

The United States delivered a landmark law.

History’s biggest polluter finally passed big climate legislation, with big climate money attached.

The $370 billion package nudges businesses to shift to renewable energy and makes public money available for research into new climate innovations. “What we’re seeing is the green shoots of a new kind of industrial policy,” David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, said at a Brookings Institution event this month.

Money starts rolling out in 2023, and it stands to reshape the American landscape and the lives of ordinary Americans. It will no doubt lead to local battles and unexpected challenges. It will be one of the most important stories to follow.

Distrust grew.

The world’s rich and poor countries are bitterly divided. Poor countries are smarting from the inequitable distribution of Covid vaccines. Several are on the brink of defaulting on their debts to richer nation creditors. Their economies have been pummeled by extreme weather disasters supersized by global warming.

The big breakthrough at this year’s climate negotiations was an agreement to create a fund to help poor countries cope with the irreversible economic losses and damages made worse by the pollution spewed by wealthy nations. Expect calls in 2023 for real money.

Given the geopolitical fault lines, global climate cooperation is not likely to be easy in 2023.

Protests grew more creative, more courageous.

Some climate activists threw food at famous paintings and got themselves arrested, though the art was protected by glass. Others deflated the tires of S.U.V.s in various cities. At the climate talks in Egypt, protests broke out not just on climate issues but also demanding the release of political prisoners — remarkable for a country where demonstrations are banned.

Beyond climate, this was a year of extraordinary protests. Sri Lankans took to the streets and unseated the government. In Iran, young people led a rare national uprising for social and political reform. Perhaps most remarkable of all, in China, people took to the streets to protest the state’s “zero Covid” policy.

Watch where and how people’s anger is channeled in 2023.

The sun came through.

Something extraordinary happened amid so much suffering.

Solar power grew so fast that the I.E.A. concluded that it could outshine coal as the largest source of global electricity by 2027.

To be sure, coal use grew a bit this year, particularly in countries seeking to get off Russian oil and gas. But the direction of change was clear: Renewables are set to double in the 2022-27 period, as compared with the previous five years, and to surpass coal’s share of total energy by 2025.

Also, in December, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory cracked the code on what might eventually be a way to produce limitless, zero-carbon energy. Watch where this still-experimental nuclear fusion research goes next year, and beyond.


I.C.Y.M.I.: Huge legislation. Secret Amazon airstrips. A trash guessing game. Reporters and editors on the Times climate team shared their favorite articles of 2022.

Tilting at wind farms: The federal government is pumping $370 billion into clean energy. Despite that sum, the fate of wind power will largely be determined in rural town halls.

Offending everyone: A pitch for socially conscious investing by BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, appears to be antagonizing both the left and the right.

Google vs. power companies: The technology company says its goals for carbon-free power are impeded by state-regulated utilities.

‘Hugely disappointing’: President Biden promised the United States would direct $11.4 billion per year to help poorer nations cope with climate change. Congress offered $1 billion, instead.

Cold-weather climate questions: What is the polar vortex? What about a “bomb cyclone?” Can climate change increase snowfall? We’ve got the answers.

Wild and Wilde: Celebrated artists are buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Increasingly, foxes, tawny owls and parakeets call it home, too.


A crucial shift: This may have been the year the green transition began, writes Leah C. Stokes, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The afterlife of holiday waste: The cartoonist Amy Hwang drew what happens to the things we throw away at Christmas.

A two-decade drought is forcing developers to find creative ways to provide water to new communities in the fast-growing Southwest. Developers are planting trees to slow evaporation, designing roads that can collect and store rain, and building water-recycling systems. According to one development consultant, “We’re at the very start of a new era of innovation and investment.


Correction: The newsletter of Tuesday, Dec. 20, misstated the role of Mark Carney in the sale of Brazilian farmland. Mr. Carney has held senior positions at Brookfield, the asset management firm that sold the land. He was not the owner of the land.


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