2022 was a historic year for climate change reform — and for natural disasters

Another year for historic storms and heat waves, spirited protest and fierce debate over rising temperatures

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published December 16, 2022 12:01PM (EST)

A forest is incinerated by the Oak Fire near Midpines, northeast of Mariposa, California, on July 23, 2022. (DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)
A forest is incinerated by the Oak Fire near Midpines, northeast of Mariposa, California, on July 23, 2022. (DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)

It may seem like 2022 was such a slog it felt more like three years instead of one — something about the pandemic has warped time perception — but even so, on geological timescales, it was a blip. Still, the industrial policies of human civilization have long-lasting impacts, especially when it comes to our influence on the environment. Our planet's average temperature has fluctuated many times throughout its 4.5 billion year history, but things are heating up, fast, and humans are to blame.

We no longer have to worry about some drastic shift in temperature in a distant future. The climate has already changed. The disaster is here. The only question remaining is if we can act quickly enough to lessen the damage from getting worse.

This is not good. It's surprising this still needs to be said in 2022, but despite the adamancy of scientists — in which agreement is 100 percent that global heating is throwing the planet out of balance — the general public still has not fully grasped the severity of the situation. Otherwise, there might be the kind of collective disruption necessary to stall this trend, which overwhelming evidence points to human activity as the underlying cause.

Many experts think humans still have a chance. But we must act, and soon. After all, it's mostly our own existence that's at threat, not the planet's. The planet will be fine. If we want humanity to continue thriving, then we need to stop burning fossil fuels, restore the environment and shift to sustainable ways of living.

In reflecting on this, it's good to look at what kind of impacts environmental policy had on us. Not everything was a catastrophe, either — in fact, there were many positive climate stories this year, which can help motivate us to continue the fight for a planet that has clean air, water and soil — a home for all life, not just human. Here's Salon's take on the most important climate stories of 2022.

Water dwindled across the globe…

Thanks to scorching temperatures and persistent drought, this year some of the world's largest rivers shriveled up like worms in the sun. Both the Yangtze in China and the Rhine in Europe dropped to historically low levels in 2022. The mighty Mississippi became a trickle, so that in many place barges became grounded in the mud, temporarily halting major shipping lines.

Across the Southwest, reservoirs dehydrated as the Colorado River became creek-like in many areas, causing Lake Mead to reach such lows that at least six sets of human remains were recovered in the receding water. As this trend worsens, it could spell disaster, such as severe water shortages, for the roughly 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River.

…While other regions experienced Biblical flooding

Global heating also contributed to record flooding in 2022. That can seem counterintuitive. Didn't we just talk about how heat caused so much water to dry up? So how is record rain connected to climate change?

When water evaporates, it needs to go somewhere. Specifically, it forms clouds. In fact, the warmer the atmosphere, the more water it can hold — and dump, all at once.

1.66 billion people were impacted by flooding between 2000 and 2020.

This is essentially what happened in Pakistan for months, which experienced a natural disaster that affected more than 33 million people. Between June and late August, regions of Pakistan experienced so much flooding that entire villages became islands while in the Sindh province, a lake 100km (62 miles) wide was created. Nearly 2,000 people died and some 1.7 million people lost their homes.

Also in 2022, widespread flooding in Nigeria affected 27 out of the 36 states, displacing 1.5 million people and killing more than 800. An analysis by international climate attribution experts found this deluge, the worst in decades, was made 80 times more likely because of climate change.

Other countries severely impacted by flooding this year include Afghanistan, Vietnam, Australia, Thailand and the United States. Towns were washed away in Venezuela and mudslides buried people in Brazil.

A recent analysis in the journal Environmental Research estimates that 1.66 billion people were impacted by flooding between 2000 and 2020. The study linked many of these events to climate change, predicting it will only get worse. "The general trend is increasingly extreme rainfall resulting in destructive flooding over a large portion of the world's surface," the authors write.

Things got heated and stormy, too

Heat waves also plagued the planet, especially in China, the U.K., the U.S., India and Pakistan. Europe experienced its hottest summer on record, which killed an estimated 16,000 people, while North America suffered through its third hottest heat wave. The excess heat contributed to wildfires, which creates a positive feedback loop as smoke traps more heat.

And don't forget the hurricanes. There was Ian, which became Florida's deadliest hurricane since 1935, with around 150 fatalities and could rack up $100 billion in repairs. But Yale Climate Connections count 28 other extreme weather events that did more than $1 billion in damage this year. Global heating has been shown to favor the meteorological conditions that makes these storms more common, more intense and more deadly.

COP27 didn't move the needle, but some minor progress was made

The 27th United Nations climate change conference, or COP27, took place this year in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, but the confluence of world leaders, policymakers, ecologists (and far too many fossil fuel companies) made for a watered-down event that doesn't match the severity of the crisis unfolding on this planet, many climate experts argue.

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Nonetheless, some progress was made, including a historic agreement to fund "loss and damage" as a way to financially assist the nations disproportionately experiencing the pitfalls of climate change. They aren't always the nations with the most greenhouse gas emissions, either, which is quite unfair and the plan aims to address. The finer details have yet to be worked out, and no actual money has been put into this fund yet, but it's good news for nations like Pakistan and Bangladesh experiencing disasters and being unable to recover from the steep costs.

Protests reminded the world what's at stake

Pro-environment protests are nothing new — the first Earth Day was borne out of outrage over a California oil spill in 1969 — but in 2022, climate protesting took on a new flair, for better or worse: "destroying" artwork in an attempt to draw attention to impending climate disaster, arguing that our planet is artwork worth saving.

If these protests are so unpopular, it raises the question: what is an effective way of getting the public's attention on this issue?

Just Stop Oil, an environmental activist group in the United Kingdom, launched in February 2022, staging protests at the 75th British Academy Film Awards and blocking traffic on the M4 motorway. Over the summer, the activists began gluing themselves to paintings, such as a copy of da Vinci's The Last Supper. But most people are more familiar with Just Stop Oil's stunt of splashing tomato soup onto a Van Gogh painting.

No paintings were damaged in any of these demonstrations, although sometimes the frames suffered some injury. However, a recent survey from the University of Pennsylvania found that for 46 percent of respondents, "these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change," with only 13 percent reporting increased support.

But if these protests are so unpopular, it raises the question: what is an effective way of getting the public's attention on this issue? On Earth Day, April 22, Wynn Alan Bruce, a 50-year-old photojournalist and climate activist from Boulder, Colorado, set himself on fire in the plaza of the U.S. Supreme Court. Bruce's self-immolation was also in protest of rising global temperatures, echoing the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during turmoil in Vietnam during the '60s.

Before his death, Bruce allegedly posted a quote on social media from the late Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk who said "to burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance." In 2022, we had to ask ourselves if we are listening. In 2023, we have to ask ourselves if we will act.

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is a science and public health journalist whose reporting has appeared in Scientific American, STAT News, Undark, VICE, and others. He co-hosts the drug policy and science podcast Narcotica. His website is troyfarah.com and can be found on Twitter at @filth_filler

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