As climate disasters mounted, the world aligned around combating the crisis: Scientists published a landmark report that concluded humans are unequivocally to blame; US President Joe Biden reentered the Paris Agreement in the early days of his administration; world leaders met at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, to negotiate solutions.
This year’s disasters are proof the climate crisis is intensifying and that the window is rapidly closing to slash our reliance on fossil fuels and to prevent changes that would transform life as we know it.
These are the top 10 climate crisis stories of 2021.
10. Historic rain at Greenland’s summit
Temperatures at the Greenland summit — roughly two miles above sea level — rose above freezing for the third time in less than a decade around August 15. Precipitation fell as rain and dumped 7 billion tons of water on the ice sheet, enough to fill the Reflecting Pool at the National Mall in Washington, DC, nearly 250,000 times.
“Things that happen in the Arctic don’t specifically stay in the Arctic,” Michelle McCrystall, climate researcher at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, previously told CNN. “The fact that there could be an increase in emissions from permafrost thaw or an increase in global sea level rise, it is a global problem, and it needs a global answer.”
9. Texas deep freeze
A crippling winter storm swept across the Central United States the week of February 15, and plunged deep into Texas — a state ill-equipped to handle a multi-day freeze. Electricity generation ground to a halt, and around 4 million people lost power.
8. Fatal floods across three continents
7. US rejoins the Paris Agreement
In April, Biden pledged to cut US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, in part to make good on the country’s renewed membership in the agreement.
Under the Paris Agreement, countries are expected to track and enhance their commitments to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions every five years. The primary goal of the climate accords is to put a lid on global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with a preferred 1.5-degree limit.
6. UN report: A ‘code red’
To halt the precipitous trend, scientists say countries must make deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
5. A critical summit in Glasgow
World leaders gathered in Glasgow in November for the UN-brokered climate change summit known as COP26.
While the final pact showed some progress, the text didn’t reflect the urgency scientists have called for. Countries agreed to “phase down” the use of unabated coal for power generation, instead of completely phasing it out. Developing nations also left disappointed after negotiations around climate financing — funding from wealthy nations to help low-income countries deal with the crisis — broke down.
4. Hurricane Ida
3. December tornado outbreak
At the tail end of a year already packed with extreme weather, a series of tornadoes tore through the Midwestern and Southeastern United States on December 12 and 13. The last month of the year is typically the quietest for tornadoes, but warm temperatures brought a historic twist.
“When you start putting a lot of these events together, and you start looking at them in the aggregate sense, the statistics are pretty clear that not only has there sort of been a change — a shift, if you will — of where the greatest tornado frequency is happening,” Gensini told CNN, “but these events are becoming perhaps stronger, more frequent and also more variable.”
2. Pacific Northwest heat wave
1. Drought, wildfires and water shortages
Scientists say this summer is only a preview of what’s to come: The United Nations’ August report concluded droughts that may have occurred only once every decade or so now happen 70% more frequently.
CNN’s Judson Jones, Haley Brink and Taylor Ward contributed to this report.