2022 Climate News You Should Know
2022 was a year of extremes, with moments of historic climate action interspersed with unprecedented climate disasters. As December comes to a close, State of the Planet asked experts from across Columbia and its Climate School what they considered to be the big news, both good and bad, within their respective fields this year. Their responses, compiled below, offer a snapshot of what transpired in 2022 — and a sense of what may come next in 2023.
Federal Climate Law and Policy
“This will fundamentally change the economics of clean energy in the United States.”
“The biggest development in climate law and policy was the surprising enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. The bill provides an unprecedented $369 billion for clean energy, and “possibly much more, depending on how many companies take advantage of the tax credits [included in the bill]. Combined with the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act of 2021 and the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, this will fundamentally change the economics of clean energy in the United States. Together, they will lead to annual government investment of about four times the previous peak. The cost of solar and wind had already been plummeting, and these new subsidies will make them even less expensive than the next-cheapest source of electricity, combined-cycle natural gas plants.” The bills also provide more money and an expedited process for building much-needed transmission lines to connect new clean energy to the grid, said Gerrard.
Atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel agreed with Gerrard. “While by no means perfect, [the IRA] is the first truly substantial climate legislation ever passed in the United States, and is a huge achievement,” he said. “I wasn’t confident that I’d ever see this happen in my lifetime, and I’m thrilled that it has. It is a testament to the activists that made it happen, and of course the policy experts, academics and staffers that designed it, both to be politically acceptable to a diverse range of constituents and also to reduce emissions substantively through major investments in clean energy technologies. It also has genuine components on adaptation and climate justice.”
Many provisions in the IRA reflect a larger commitment by the Biden administration to advance justice and equity through federal investment, as featured in President Biden’s State of the Union speech in March. “For the first time in the nation’s history, the federal government has made it a goal that 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution,” said John Williams, an urban historian who teaches the course Geographies of Environmental Justice and Sustainability in Columbia’s Sustainability Management program.
“The field of environmental justice is expanding tremendously.”
This commitment, known as the Justice40 Initiative, has ensured that federal funding and other resources are dedicated specifically to “putting environmental justice issues on the forefront,” he explained. “Organizations and activists who have been working for decades on these causes now have capital and resources available to do the grassroots work they have been doing for so long.”
Williams has already seen the impact of Justice40 through the development of climate and environmental justice fellowship programs at historically Black colleges and universities.
“The field of environmental justice is expanding tremendously. Initiatives like Justice40 strengthen the activism. [They] lead more people towards studies and careers in the field, and [result in more] solutions to the many environmental justice and sustainability issues,” he said.
2022 was also not without breakthroughs in the private sector. Steve Cohen, senior vice dean of Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, underscored the importance of the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission’s rule change, announced in March, that will require publicly traded companies to disclose their climate risks.
“This is noteworthy as it underscores that investors have begun to see the financial risks posed by environmental degradation,” said Cohen. “Building the organizational capacity to measure, analyze, and report a company’s environmental impact is a necessary but not sufficient condition to reduce that impact. However, at a minimum, the new SEC rule will help provide environmental sustainability with a role like that played by accounting and financial management in management education. CEOs must be able to read and understand a financial statement; going into 2023, they will need to understand an environmental impact statement as well.”
International Law and Policy
For international investment law, Martin Dietrich Brauch, lead researcher at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, said that the one of the biggest developments of 2022 was when seven European Union member states representing more than 70 percent of the EU’s population—France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain—publicly announced their decision to withdraw from the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) in November.
The ECT provides an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, which makes it “more difficult and costly for states to take legitimate climate action,” Brauch explained. “For instance, when a government takes measures to restrict oil and gas exploration or exploitation, stop the expansion of pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, or phase out coal-fired power generation, investment treaties with investor-state dispute settlements allow foreign investors to sue their host states and claim monetary compensation for those measures. In other words, they protect and reward investments that interfere dangerously with the climate system, undermining the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.
The seven EU member states—including key original proponents of the ECT—decided to exit the treaty after a recent renegotiation failed to address these issues.
One of the latest reports from the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment also confirms that investment treaties like the ECT are neither effective nor decisive in attracting investment in renewables, and can in fact be extraordinarily costly for states and for the broader policy objective of encouraging renewable energy investments.
The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment has been calling on EU member states to withdraw from the ECT for some time.
“The EU member states’ withdrawal from the ECT reinforces an argument [our center] has long been making: the international community should consider clearing the path of the existing investment treaties through their termination or through withdrawal of consent to investor-state dispute settlements,” said Brauch. “It also stresses the importance of work that is at the core of our mission: thinking innovatively about how international law can support investment governance to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including climate action.”
The urgency and importance of global climate action has been acutely shaped by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
“The ongoing war in Ukraine creates uncertainties as to the future of clean and affordable energy supply.”
“This year has put tremendous pressure on global energy systems and will have far reaching ramifications to the global economy and our planet,” said Kong Chyong, senior research scholar at the School of International and Public Affairs. “As Russia continues to weaponize its energy by cutting supplies to Ukraine and its allies, many developing countries — Pakistan, for example — are facing fuel shortages; meanwhile, others such as Europe and China are ramping up the usage of dirty fuels like coal in response to high energy prices and a global shortage of energy, particularly natural gas. The ongoing war in Ukraine, therefore, creates uncertainties as to the future of clean and affordable energy supply not just to developed nations, but importantly to developing nations as they embark on their journey to industrialize their economies and to give affordable and clean energy access to their citizens.”
While countries have grappled this year with meeting their energy demands — at times undermining their own decarbonization efforts to do so — the impacts of climate change have raged on. The October wildfires in the Pacific Northwest were the biggest news story for air pollution in 2022 for V. Faye McNeill, atmospheric scientist and vice chair and director of the Undergraduate Program for the Department of Chemical Engineering.
For a period of time, Seattle and Portland were among the cities with the worst air quality in the world. “Wildfires in the Western U.S. and Canada are the largest air quality challenge facing the U.S. in modern times,” said McNeill. “And this problem will continue to get worse under a changing climate — in 2023 and beyond.”
The air pollution from wildfires and other sources like power plants and combustion vehicles disproportionately affects marginalized communities, including low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Over the last year, PhD candidate Garima Raheja at Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has been pleased to see more and more research dedicated to the intersection of air quality and environmental justice. As residents from heavily polluted areas demand action, lawmakers and federal government agencies are also beginning to take community science and low-cost air pollution sensors more seriously.
“These sensors offer a way for income-constrained areas to monitor their air, and also offer a chance to understand spatial heterogeneities within a city, which expensive regulatory monitors cannot really do,” she said. “As we continue this work, I hope we can also pivot to actually solving [the root of these] problems by shutting down fossil fuel plants and closing highways in favor of public transit and walkable cities.”
There were important strides taken to decarbonize the transportation sector in 2022, particularly through vehicle electrification, said Jackie Klopp, co-director of the Columbia Climate School’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. In the first quarter of 2022, some 2 million electric vehicles (EVs) were sold globally — a 75% increase compared to 2021. Additional incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act for new and used EVs are also expected to accelerate their adoption in the United States.
Despite this progress, the transportation sector continues to be the fastest growing source of emissions worldwide. Klopp stressed that electrification is just one instrument that “should not distract from other measures,” including shifting to public and non-motorized transport.
“We can laud progress on electrification but cannot allow it to be an excuse for continuing with automobile and automobile-oriented development,” said Klopp. “The lesson for 2023 is that we will need to work a lot harder and a lot more holistically to make transport greener, cleaner, and safe.”
The connections between public health and climate change have also become more prominent over the last year. Robbie Parks, environmental epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, highlighted the new $100 million climate change and health initiative that the Biden administration and the National Institutes of Health announced in March.
“It is real recognition by the Biden administration that public health is an effective lever for [climate action],” he said. “[The funding will support] actionable research to reduce the health threats from climate change across the lifespan and to build health resilience in individuals, communities and nations around the world, especially those at the highest risk.”
Climate change is exacerbating hunger and famine.
One of the greatest threats to global health is the exacerbation of hunger and famine due to climate change, said Lew Ziska, associate professor in Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. For example, 2022 marks four consecutive drought years that have compromised food availability in East Africa, including in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.
“Millions are being threatened,” said Ziska. “[There is a need to] bring attention to the issue [and] think about public health not just from an obesity standpoint, but through the lens of hunger and famine as well. [This includes asking questions like] what are the impacts [of hunger] on health and development? And what are the best ways to overcome famine and support nutritional integrity?”
John Furlow, director of Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), shared a similar perspective. “There were some terrible disasters this year that disrupted many aspects of our lives — not just agriculture,” he said. “What’s remarkable is that many of the disasters that we continue to suffer through are forecastable.”
Before the deadly flooding in Pakistan this summer, IRI forecasts issued in May and June had predicted abnormally heavy rainfall months; Pakistan had also set up early warning systems after the historic floods of 2010-2011. But, Furlow said, it appears that little was done in response. “The existence of good information does not mean problems will be averted. Decision makers have to know the information exists. They have to understand it, and they have to have the resources to take action,” he said.
One of the primary focuses of the IRI is to help developing countries get the climate information they need to manage food security, as well as disasters and vector-borne disease risks, based on the projected conditions for the next growing season. Furlow hopes that, in 2023, there will be a greater use of the kinds of tools that IRI provides. “Until something changes, the tragedies we saw this summer will continue to happen. We run the risk of normalizing these disasters,” he said, “and our ambivalence to them.”
Relatedly, in the water sector, the “big news of 2022 was the coincident and unprecedented droughts and floods over much of the world,” said Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center. Lall explained that these extreme events are not random, but instead are due in large part to the particular configuration of a La Niña condition in the tropical Pacific ocean, which results in cooler ocean temperatures than normal near the equator. In many cases this year, several countries or regions experienced a major drought followed by a major flood, including Europe, central Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.
“These space-time clustered events have major global impacts,” said Lall. “And while compound risks due to multiple climate extremes are being recognized, the field has been slow to realize that many locations may experience these in the same year due to the way the climate system is organized. The net result is a global impact on supply chains that leads to significant inflationary pressures. This is now in people’s face and will change how we think about water and climate shocks from a global perspective.”
Mingfang Ting, co-director of the Columbia Climate School’s MA in Climate and Society Program, also referred to the “unprecedented heatwaves and floods” of 2022. “The magnitude, frequency, and spatial extent [of these events] has even surprised climate scientists,” she said.
Ting added that “the good news” is that countries reached a breakthrough agreement to establish a “loss and damage” fund at the UN climate summit (COP27) to provide financial assistance to countries most vulnerable to climate change. Though far from sufficient to meet the global gap in climate finance, the agreement is an important first step.
“I anticipate that [last year’s heatwaves and floods together with the new loss and damage fund] will accelerate research in attributing extreme events and their devastating consequences to anthropogenic causes in the coming years,” said Ting.
When considering extreme weather in the United States, Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, director at the Columbia Climate School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, pointed to the historic infrastructure investments this year from the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act as pivotal to improving long-term disaster resilience.
New legislation includes major investments in climate adaptation.
“A lot of attention is on the climate mitigation aspects [of these bills], but they also contain major investments for climate adaptation and equity,” said Schlegelmilch. “Updating our aging infrastructure — including our electric grid, roads, and buildings — for the integration of new technologies will contribute to more resilience in the face of disasters…. Modernizing this [infrastructure] in a more equitable way will [provide greater benefits to] historically underserved communities and is the only real possibility for getting ahead of a trend of increasing disasters and the impacts to those affected.”
“I think we will see a lot of new initiatives [in 2023] and things like ground-breaking ceremonies with golden shovels full of dirt,” he added. “The real impacts, though, will come in the years and even decades to come as [these projects] have time to come to fruition.”