Remember 2020 Not for Covid-19 or Trump Chaos, But Climate Change

10 January, 2021
The 2020 Australian wildfires were declared among the

We all remem­ber the cat­a­clysmic wild­fires in Aus­tralia and Cal­i­for­nia, but our atten­tion was over­tak­en by the pan­dem­ic and US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Yet, accord­ing to data released by the Coper­ni­cus Cli­mate Change Ser­vice, glob­al­ly 2020 was on par with the warmest year ever record­ed (2016), mark­ing the end of the warmest decade on record. Johan Rock­ström, direc­tor of The Pots­dam Insti­tute for Cli­mate Impact Research (PIK) said that while it is not about record heat in any giv­en year, “we are look­ing back on an alarm­ing­ly warm decade with an alarm­ing amount of extreme weath­er events […] — nev­er before in the his­to­ry of human civ­i­liza­tion have we had such warm­ing.” Rock­ström said the trend could only be stopped by quick­ly reduc­ing CO2 emis­sions. “We can make the reduc­tion, but we real­ly need to start now.”  (Clean Ener­gy Wire)

Iason Athanasiadis

The streets of Tunis were ghostlike and empty during the pandemic.

The streets of Tunis were dead­ly qui­et on New Year’s Eve; the street­lights’ dif­fused orange only slight­ly pushed back the dark­ness. My part­ner and I stole along desert­ed lanes, slip­ping through the med­i­na on our way to an ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry build­ing in the Tunisian cap­i­tal’s walled inner city, where friends cel­e­brat­ed the chang­ing of the year.

I avoid­ed crowds even before the pan­dem­ic, and usu­al­ly don’t cel­e­brate the New Year, pre­fer­ring not to inflict my win­ter melan­choly on oth­ers. But this year felt dif­fer­ent: the usu­al man­u­fac­tured cheer was absent, and the des­o­late city’s facades and pol­ished flag­stones coaxed us outside.

Online, con­ven­tion­al wis­dom had it that 2020 had been a ter­ri­ble year. Scrolling through fer­vent dig­i­tal sup­pli­ca­tions for a return to nor­mal­i­ty in 2021, I won­dered what very dif­fer­ent things that might mean to each of us. Per­haps most of us alive today can’t say we’ve expe­ri­enced what could hon­est­ly be called nor­mal­i­ty, at least in cli­mate terms. And we’ve cer­tain­ly not wit­nessed authen­tic Nature, unmold­ed to human needs by indus­tri­al soci­ety, for at least a cen­tu­ry (or three, depend­ing on where you live). 

But in 2020 we came clos­er to Nature dur­ing the first days of quar­an­tine. With humans shel­ter­ing inside, birds appeared in larg­er num­bers over the cities, and a suc­ces­sion of shim­mer­ing­ly-clear days dawned. Pol­lu­tion clouds cleared from cities across the world. We became unex­pect­ed recip­i­ents of a month of Sun­days, and began shar­ing videos of dol­phins frol­ick­ing in the Bosporus’s sud­den­ly clean waters or wolves and deer cheek­i­ly traips­ing up main streets and through front gardens. 

And yet, all of last March’s won­der at how quick­ly and bril­liant­ly Nature can recon­sti­tute itself, had appar­ent­ly been for­got­ten by New Year’s Eve as peo­ple clam­ored for a per­son­al­ly bet­ter 2021. It felt a lit­tle … scat­ter-brained, for want of a ters­er adjective.

Of course, there was noth­ing fun about a year of home con­fine­ment, reduced income and fear­ing for one­self and loved ones, espe­cial­ly while tax-evad­ing, globe-trot­ting elites con­tin­ued roam­ing unaccountably. 

In Greece, where I live, the right-wing gov­ern­ment turned the cri­sis into an oppor­tu­ni­ty, hir­ing new police recruits, buy­ing equip­ment and clos­ing arms deals instead of invest­ing in doc­tors, nurs­es and the health sec­tor. Its leg­is­la­tors took advan­tage of the cleared streets and a pop­u­la­tion hooked to dai­ly pan­dem­ic brief­in­gs to push through anti-work­er leg­is­la­tion and final­ly over­come local oppo­si­tion to envi­ron­men­tal­ly-destruc­tive alter­na­tive energy. 

During lockdown, deer wandered into the city, unsure where to go next.

Ships deposit­ed parts in har­bors that had, until recent­ly, been block­ad­ed by locals, and soon land­scape-scar­ring wind-tur­bines bal­anced upon enor­mous con­crete bases cropped up all along new­ly-carved roads. Eco­log­i­cal destruc­tion was being car­ried out in the name of sav­ing the envi­ron­ment, in pur­suit of the chimera that we can main­tain our way of life by sim­ply switch­ing to green energy.

Just like my friends, I was­n’t look­ing for­ward to see­ing this year repeat­ed, but it seemed unavoid­able as long as we con­tin­ued to per­ceive things in indi­vid­u­al­is­tic and iso­lat­ed ways, lim­it­ing our­selves to the inno­cent hope that our lit­tle world might return to what it once was. The irony of want­i­ng back a way of life that had dri­ven cli­mate change, and con­tributed to the chopped-down forests and inten­sive live­stock farm­ing that incu­bat­ed the pan­dem­ic, appar­ent­ly elid­ed us. 

2020 was not a depar­ture, but a log­i­cal con­tin­u­a­tion of every­thing pre­ced­ing it. Treat­ing it as a fluke event and express­ing a sense of loss about the pol­lut­ing, con­sumeris­tic nor­mal­i­ty in which we, as high-income, ener­gy-guz­zling First Worlders were paused from par­tic­i­pat­ing, was dis­hon­est. Per­haps it would have been bet­ter to antic­i­pate get­ting “our lives” back only after we’d changed the cir­cum­stances that got us here in the first place. 

As I walked through the streets of Tunis, I thought about some of the uplift­ing things that hap­pened in 2020: CO2 out­put had dipped by 9% in its first half, a huge reduc­tion com­pared even to the 2008 eco­nom­ic cri­sis. And human­i­ty also proved it was capa­ble of tak­ing urgent and deci­sive action to save the cli­mate, even if the results we were see­ing were just unin­tend­ed side-effects of mea­sures adopt­ed for a more anthro­pocen­tric pur­pose: pro­tect­ing us from the virus.

The lock­down also gave us the gift of time, the most valu­able com­mod­i­ty in an atten­tion-clam­our­ing cen­tu­ry. As the fran­tic round­about of com­mutes and social, aca­d­e­m­ic and sports events came to a halt, read­ing a book reemerged as a pos­si­bil­i­ty. It was a mag­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty for self-improve­ment, and a test-dri­ve for how a life lived under a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income (UBI) regime might feel.

Com­put­ers and robots are increas­ing­ly run­ning fac­to­ries, hotels, and vehi­cles, but no one has addressed what will hap­pen to all the unem­ployed humans now that it has been some gen­er­a­tions since we live to work instead of work­ing to live. Putting every­one on UBI could deter social unrest, but it could also evolve into a dis­ci­plin­ing mech­a­nism akin to the sys­tem of reward-based social con­trol that Chi­na adopt­ed. This is a night­mare sce­nario, but so is busi­ness-as-usu­al on a slow­ly-bak­ing planet. 

CO2 emissions chart from  Our World in Data .

The post-Sec­ond World War con­sen­sus that con­sumerism-fueled 3% annu­al growth could avert a repeat of the chaos has end­ed. Envi­ron­men­tal­ism was­n’t even a fad at the time, so the con­se­quences of unbri­dled indus­tri­al growth on the plan­et were ignored. CO2 emis­sions det­o­nat­ed, result­ing in his­tor­i­cal­ly-unprece­dent­ed CO2 con­cen­tra­tions in the atmos­phere, which peaked in 2016 when we crossed the 400ppm (parts per mis­sion). That year, we churned anoth­er 36 bil­lion cubic tons of CO2 into the atmos­phere. And since there’s a lag before emis­sions make their pres­ence felt, the ppms just kept on ris­ing (they’re around 410ppm now), even despite 2020’s unprece­dent­ed reduc­tion. But there is now already enough CO2 in the atmos­phere to ensure we push past 2 degrees of cli­mate warming—and in 2021, we’ll also exceed 417ppm, even though in 2019 UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al António Gut­teres called 410ppm “an unbreak­able tip­ping point.”

This all result­ed in 2020 being the hottest year on record for the plan­et, almost 1 degree Cel­sius above pre-indus­tri­al times, and per­ilous­ly close to the 1.5 degree lim­it set by the Paris cli­mate agree­ment. But even though our dystopi­an cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe is no longer in the future but part of our lived real­i­ty, the Chi­nese econ­o­my went back to pump­ing out pol­lu­tion after over­com­ing its pan­dem­ic, and some peo­ple remain anx­ious about going back to an imag­ined normality. 

Well, at least the US under Pres­i­dent Joe Biden will rejoin the Paris Agree­ment. But will the US still insist on the Pen­ta­gon, the world’s sin­gle largest insti­tu­tion­al con­sumer of petro­le­um whose annu­al emis­sions rank it 55th in the world, remain exempt from over­sight and reduc­tions in emis­sions? The fact is that the US mil­i­tary is as big a pol­luter as 140 coun­tries.

In Tunis, I was still think­ing such thoughts as we count­ed down to the New Year. We kissed and wished each oth­er all good things for the year. A few min­utes lat­er I brushed away a mos­qui­to, incred­u­lous to be see­ing one in Jan­u­ary. It was 2021, and I real­ized that my fer­vent wish was to nev­er go back to normality.

TMR contributing editor Iason Athanasiadis is a Mediterranean-focused multimedia journalist based between Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. He uses all media to recount the story of how we can adapt to the era of climate change, mass migration, and the misapplication of distorted modernities. He studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, Persian and Contemporary Iranian Studies in Tehran, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, before working for the United Nations between 2011 and 2018. He received the Anna Lindh Foundation’s Mediterranean Journalism Award for his coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, and its 10th-anniversary alumni award for his commitment to using all media to tell stories of intercultural dialogue in 2017.

2020carbon dioxideclimate changeCO2confinementCovid-19 pandemicMediterraneanTunisUniversal Basic Income


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