Why 2013 Was & Wasn’t The Best Year In Human History
5 REASONS WHY 2013 WAS THE BEST YEAR IN HUMAN HISTORY
9 REASONS WHY 2013 WAS NOT THE BEST YEAR IN HUMAN HISTORY
Why 2013 Was & Wasn’t The Best Year In Human HistoryDec 27
Visit the original articles to see the extensive photos, charts, references, and background information that accompany these outstanding articles.
For additional perspective, read “2012: The Greatest Year In The History Of The World“.
5 REASONS WHY 2013 WAS THE BEST YEAR IN HUMAN HISTORY
By Zack Beauchamp
December 11, 2013
Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown and all of the deadly dysfunction it represents, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.
But you’d be wrong. We have every reason to believe that 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind.
Contrary to what you might have heard, virtually all of the most important forces that determine what make people’s lives good — the things that determine how long they live, and whether they live happily and freely — are trending in an extremely happy direction. While it’s possible that this progress could be reversed by something like runaway climate change, the effects will have to be dramatic to overcome the extraordinary and growing progress we’ve made in making the world a better place.
Here’s the five big reasons why.
1. Fewer people are dying young, and more are living longer.
The greatest story in recent human history is the simplest: we’re winning the fight against death. “There is not a single country in the world where infant or child mortality today is not lower than it was in 1950,” writes Angus Deaton, a Princeton economist who works on global health issues.
The most up-to-date numbers on global health, the 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) statistical compendium, confirm Deaton’s estimation. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of children who died before their fifth birthday dropped by almost half. Measles deaths declined by 71 percent, and both tuberculosis and maternal deaths by half again. HIV, that modern plague, is also being held back, with deaths from AIDS-related illnesses down by 24 percent since 2005.
In short, fewer people are dying untimely deaths. And that’s not only true in rich countries: life expectancy has gone up between 1990 and 2011 in every WHO income bracket. The gains are even more dramatic if you take the long view: global life expectancy was 47 in the early 1950s, but had risen to 70 — a 50 percent jump — by 2011. For even more perspective, the average Briton in 1850 — when the British Empire had reached its apex — was 40. The average person today should expect to live almost twice as long as the average citizen of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country in 1850.
In real terms, this means millions of fewer dead adults and children a year, millions fewer people who spend their lives suffering the pains and unfreedoms imposed by illness, and millions more people spending their twilight years with loved ones. And the trends are all positive — “progress has accelerated in recent years in many countries with the highest rates of mortality,” as the WHO rather bloodlessly put it.
What’s going on? Obviously, it’s fairly complicated, but the most important drivers have been technological and political innovation. The Enlightenment-era advances in the scientific method got people doing high-quality research, which brought us modern medicine and the information technologies that allow us to spread medical breakthroughs around the world at increasingly faster rates. Scientific discoveries also fueled the Industrial Revolution and the birth of modern capitalism, giving us more resources to devote to large-scale application of live-saving technologies. And the global spread of liberal democracy made governments accountable to citizens, forcing them to attend to their health needs or pay the electoral price.
We’ll see the enormously beneficial impact of these two forces, technology and democracy, repeatedly throughout this list, which should tell you something about the foundations of human progress. But when talking about improvements in health, we shouldn’t neglect foreign aid. Nations donating huge amounts of money out of an altruistic interest in the welfare of foreigners is historically unprecedented, and while not all aid has been helpful, health aid has been a huge boon.
Even Deaton, who wrote one of 2013′s harshest assessments of foreign aid, believes “the case for assistance to fight disease such as HIV/AIDS or smallpox is strong.” That’s because these programs have demonstrably saved lives — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a 2003 program pushed by President Bush, paid for anti-retroviral treatment for over 5.1 million people in the poor countries hardest-hit by the AIDS epidemic.
So we’re outracing the Four Horseman, extending our lives faster than pestilence, war, famine, and death can take them. That alone should be enough to say the world is getting better.
2. Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, and the world is getting happier.
There are fewer people in abject penury than at any other point in human history, and middle class people enjoy their highest standard of living ever. We haven’t come close to solving poverty: a number of African countries in particular have chronic problems generating growth, a nut foreign aid hasn’t yet cracked. So this isn’t a call for complacency about poverty any more than acknowledging victories over disease is an argument against tackling malaria. But make no mistake: as a whole, the world is much richer in 2013 than it was before.
721 million fewer people lived in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day) in 2010 than in 1981, according to a new World Bank study from October. That’s astounding — a decline from 40 to about 14 percent of the world’s population suffering from abject want. And poverty rates are declining in every national income bracket: even in low income countries, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day in 2005 dollars) a day gone down from 63 in 1981 to 44 in 2010.
We can be fairly confident that these trends are continuing. For one thing, they survived the Great Recession in 2008. For another, the decline in poverty has been fueled by global economic growth, which looks to be continuing: global GDP grew by 2.3 percent in 2012, a number that’ll rise to 2.9 percent in 2013 according to IMF projections.
The bulk of the recent decline in poverty comes form India and China — about 80 percent from China *alone*. Chinese economic and social reform, a delayed reaction to the mass slaughter and starvation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, has been the engine of poverty’s global decline. If you subtract China, there are actually more poor people today than there were in 1981 (population growth trumping the percentage declines in poverty).
But we shouldn’t discount China. If what we care about is fewer people suffering the misery of poverty, then it shouldn’t matter what nation the less-poor people call home. Chinese growth should be celebrated, not shunted aside.
The poor haven’t been the only people benefitting from global growth. Middle class people have access to an ever-greater stock of life-improving goods. Televisions and refrigerators, once luxury goods, are now comparatively cheap and commonplace. That’s why large-percentage improvements in a nation’s GDP appear to correlate strongly with higher levels of happiness among the nation’s citizens; people like having things that make their lives easier and more worry-free.
Global economic growth in the past five decades has dramatically reduced poverty and made people around the world happier. Once again, we’re better off.
3. War is becoming rarer and less deadly.
Another massive conflict could overturn the global progress against disease and poverty. But it appears war, too, may be losing its fangs.
Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels Of Our Nature is the gold standard in this debate. Pinker brought a treasure trove of data to bear on the question of whether the world has gotten more peaceful, and found that, in the long arc of human history, both war and other forms of violence (the death penalty, for instance) are on a centuries-long downward slope.
Pinker summarizes his argument here if you don’t own the book. Most eye-popping are the numbers for the past 50 years; Pinker finds that “the worldwide rate of death from interstate and civil war combined has juddered downward…from almost 300 per 100,000 world population during World War II, to almost 30 during the Korean War, to the low teens during the era of the Vietnam War, to single digits in the 1970s and 1980s, to less than 1 in the twenty-ﬁrst century.” Here’s what that looks like graphed:
So it looks like the smallest percentage of humans alive since World War II, and in all likelihood in human history, are living through the horrors of war. Did 2013 give us any reason to believe that Pinker and the other scholars who agree with him have been proven wrong?
Probably not. The academic debate over the decline of war really exploded in 2013, but the “declinist” thesis has fared pretty well. Challenges to Pinker’s conclusion that battle deaths have gone down over time have not withstood scrutiny. The most compelling critique, a new paper by Bear F. Braumoeller, argues that if you control for the larger number of countries in the last 50 years, war happens at roughly the same rates as it has historically.
There are lots of things you might say about Braumoeller’s argument, and I’ve asked Pinker for his two cents (update: Pinker’s response here). But most importantly, if battle deaths per 100,000 people really has declined, then his argument doesn’t mean very much. If (percentage-wise) fewer people are dying from war, then what we call “war” now is a lot less deadly than “war” used to be. Braumoeller suggests population growth and improvements in battle medicine explain the decline, but that’s not convincing: tell me with a straight face that the only differences in deadliness between World War II, Vietnam, and the wars you see today is that there are more people and better doctors.
There’s a more rigorous way of putting that: today, we see many more civil wars than we do wars between nations. The former tend to be less deadly than the latter. That’s why the other major challenge to Pinker’s thesis in 2013, the deepening of the Syrian civil war, isn’t likely to upset the overall trend. Syria’s war is an unimaginable tragedy, one responsible for the rare, depressing increase in battle deaths from 2011 to 2012. However, the overall 2011-2012 trend “fits well with the observed long-term decline in battle deaths,” according to researchers at the authoritative Uppsala Conflict Data Program, because the uptick is not enough to suggest an overall change in trend. We should expect something similar when the 2013 numbers are published.
Why are smaller and smaller percentages of people being exposed to the horrors of war? There are lots of reasons one could point to, but two of the biggest ones are the spread of democracy and humans getting, for lack of a better word, better.
That democracies never, or almost never, go to war with each other is not seriously in dispute: the statistical evidence is ridiculously strong. While some argue that the “democratic peace,” as it’s called, is caused by things other than democracy itself, there’s good experimental evidence that democratic leaders and citizens just don’t want to fight each other.
Since 1950, democracy has spread around the world like wildfire. There were only a handful of democracies after World War II, but that grew to roughly 40 percent of all by the end of the Cold War. Today, a comfortable majority — about 60 percent — of all states are democracies. This freer world is also a safer one.
Second — and this is Pinker’s preferred explanation — people have developed strategies for dealing with war’s causes and consequences. “Human ingenuity and experience have gradually been brought to bear,” Pinker writes, “just as they have chipped away at hunger and disease.” A series of human inventions, things like U.N. peacekeeping operations, which nowadays are very successful at reducing violence, have given us a set of social tools increasingly well suited to reducing the harm caused by armed conflict.
War’s decline isn’t accidental, in other words. It’s by design.
4. Rates of murder and other violent crimes are in free-fall.
Pinker’s trend against violence isn’t limited just to war. It seems likes crimes, both of the sort states commit against their citizens and citizens commit against each other, are also on the decline.
Take a few examples. Slavery, once commonly sanctioned by governments, is illegal everywhere on earth. The use of torture as legal punishment has gone down dramatically. The European murder rate fell 35-fold from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century (check out this amazing 2003 paper from Michael Eisner (pdf), who dredged up medieval records to estimate European homicide rates in the swords-and-chivalry era, if you don’t believe me).
The decline has been especially marked in recent years. Though homicide crime rates climbed back up from their historic lows between the 1970s and 1990s, reversing progress made since the late 19th century, they have collapsed worldwide in the 21st century. 557,000 people were murdered in 2001 — almost three times as many as were killed in war that year. In 2008, that number was 289,000, and the homicide rate has been declining in 75 percent of nations since then.
Statistics from around the developed world, where numbers are particularly reliable, show that it’s not just homicide that’s on the wane: it’s almost all violent crime. US government numbers show that violent crime in the United States declined from a peak of about 750 crimes per 100,000 Americans to under 450 by 2009. G7 as a whole countries show huge declines in homicide, robbery, and vehicle theft.
So even in countries that aren’t at poor or at war, most people’s lives are getting safer and more secure. Why?
We know it’s not incarceration. While the United States and Britain have dramatically increased their prison populations, others, like Canada, the Netherlands, and Estonia, reduced their incarceration rates and saw similar declines in violent crime. Same thing state-to-state in the United States; New York imprisoned fewer people and saw the fastest crime decline in the country.
The Economist’s deep dive into the explanations for crime’s collapse provides a few answers. Globally, police have gotten better at working with communities and targeting areas with the most crime. They’ve also gotten new toys, like DNA testing, that make it easier to catch criminals.
The crack epidemic in the United States and its heroin twin in Europe have both slowed down dramatically. Rapid gentrification has made inner-city crime harder. And the increasing cheapness of “luxury” goods like iPods and DVD players has reduced incentives for crime on both the supply and demand sides: stealing a DVD player isn’t as profitable, and it’s easier for a would-be thief to buy one in the first place.
But there’s one explanation The Economist dismissed that strikes me as hugely important: the abolition of lead gasoline. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones wrote what’s universally acknowledged to be the definitive argument for the lead/crime link, and it’s incredibly compelling. We know for a fact that lead exposure damages people’s brains and can potentially be fatal; that’s why an international campaign to ban leaded gasoline started around 1970. Today, leaded gasoline is almost unheard of — it’s banned in 175 countries, and there’s been a decline in lead blood levels by about 90 percent.
Drum marshals a wealth of evidence that the parts of the brain damaged by lead are the same ones that check people’s aggressive impulses. Moreover, the timing matches up: crime shot up in the mid-to-late-20th century as cars spread around the world, and started to decline in the 70s as the anti-lead campaign was succeeding. Here’s close the relationship is, using data from the United States:
Now, non-homicide violent crime appears to have ticked up in 2012, based on U.S. government surveys of victims of crime, but it’s very possible that’s just a blip: the official Department of Justice report says up-front that “the apparent increase in the rate of violent crimes reported to police from 2011 to 2012 was not statistically significant.”
So we have no reason to believe crime is making a come back, and every reason to believe the historical decline in criminal violence is here to stay.
5. There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world.
Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination remain, without a doubt, extraordinarily powerful forces. The statistical and experimental evidence is overwhelming — this irrefutable proof of widespread discrimination against African-Americans, for instance, should put the “racism is dead” fantasy to bed.
Yet the need to combat discrimination denial shouldn’t blind us to the good news. Over the centuries, humanity has made extraordinary progress in taming its hate for and ill-treatment of other humans on the basis of difference alone. Indeed, it is very likely that we live in the least discriminatory era in the history of modern civilization. It’s not a huge prize given how bad the past had been, but there are still gains worth celebrating.
Go back 150 years in time and the point should be obvious. Take four prominent groups in 1860: African-Americans were in chains, European Jews were routinely massacred in the ghettos and shtetls they were confined to, women around the world were denied the opportunity to work outside the home and made almost entirely subordinate to their husbands, and LGBT people were invisible. The improvements in each of these group’s statuses today, both in the United States and internationally, are incontestable.
On closer look, we have reason to believe the happy trends are likely to continue. Take racial discrimination. In 2000, Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo penned a comprehensive assessment of the data on racial attitudes in the United States. He found a “national consensus” on the ideals of racial equality and integration. “A nation once comfortable as a deliberately segregationist and racially discriminatory society has not only abandoned that view,” Bobo writes, “but now overtly positively endorses the goals of racial integration and equal treatment. There is no sign whatsoever of retreat from this ideal, despite events that many thought would call it into question. The magnitude, steadiness, and breadth of this change should be lost on no one.”
The norm against overt racism has gone global. In her book on the international anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, Syracuse’s Audie Klotz says flatly that “the illegitimacy of white minority rule led to South Africa’s persistent diplomatic, cultural, and economic isolation.” The belief that racial discrimination could not be tolerated had become so widespread, Klotz argues, that it united the globe — including governments that had strategic interests in supporting South Africa’s whites — in opposition to apartheid. In 2011, 91 percent of respondents in a sample of 21 diverse countries said that equal treatment of people of different races or ethnicities was important to them.
Racism obviously survived both American and South African apartheid, albeit in more subtle, insidious forms. “The death of Jim Crow racism has left us in an uncomfortable place,” Bobo writes, “a state of laissez-faire racism” where racial discrimination and disparities still exist, but support for the kind of aggressive government policies needed to address them is racially polarized. But there’s reason to hope that’ll change as well: two massive studies of the political views of younger Americans by my TP Ideas colleagues, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, found that millenials were significantly more racially tolerant and supportive of government action to address racial disparities than the generations that preceded them. Though I’m not aware of any similar research of on a global scale, it’s hard not to imagine they’d find similar results, suggesting that we should have hope that the power of racial prejudice may be waning.
The story about gender discrimination is very similar: after the feminist movement’s enormous victories in the 20th century, structural sexism still shapes the world in profound ways, but the cause of gender equality is making progress. In 2011, 86 percent of people in a diverse 21 country sample said that equal treatment on the basis of gender was an important value. The U.N.’s Human Development Report’s Gender Inequality Index — a comprehensive study of reproductive health, social empowerment, and labor market equity — saw a 20 percent decline in observable gender inequalities from 1995 to 2011. IMF data show consistent global declines in wage disparities between genders, labor force participation, and educational attainment around the world. While enormous inequality remains, 2013 is looking to be the worst year for sexism in history.
Finally, we’ve made astonishing progress on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination — largely in the past 15 years. At the beginning of 2003, zero Americans lived in marriage equality states; by the end of 2013, 38 percent of Americans will. Article 13 of the European Community Treaty bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and, in 2011, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution committing the council to documenting and exposing discrimination on orientation or identity grounds around the world. The public opinion trends are positive worldwide: all of the major shifts from 2007 to 2013 in Pew’s “acceptance of homosexuality” poll were towards greater tolerance, and young people everywhere are more open to equality for LGBT individuals than their older peers.
Once again, these victories are partial and by no means inevitable. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination aren’t just “going away” on their own. They’re losing their hold on us because people are working to change other people’s minds and because governments are passing laws aimed at promoting equality. Positive trends don’t mean the problems are close to solved, and certainly aren’t excuses for sitting on our hands.
That’s true of everything on this list. The fact that fewer people are dying from war and disease doesn’t lessen the moral imperative to do something about those that are; the fact that people are getting richer and safer in their homes isn’t an excuse for doing more to address poverty and crime.
But too often, the worst parts about the world are treated as inevitable, the prospect of radical victory over pain and suffering dismissed as utopian fantasy. The overwhelming force of the evidence shows that to be false. As best we can tell, the reason humanity is getting better is because humans have decided to make the world a better place. We consciously chose to develop lifesaving medicine and build freer political systems; we’ve passed laws against workplace discrimination and poisoning children’s minds with lead.
So far, these choices have more than paid off. It’s up to us to make sure they continue to.
9 REASONS WHY 2013 WAS NOT THE BEST YEAR IN HUMAN HISTORY
By Ryan Koronowski and Katie Valentine
December 16, 2013
If you’ve been paying attention to the state of the world’s climate, you may have been shocked to read that 2013 was the best year in human history.
In 2013, enough fossil fuels were burned so that carbon pollution levels hit the milestone of 400 parts per million. Scientists confirmed, again, that this is bad news for most of the residents of Planet Earth, with many plants and animals facing extinction. This carbon pollution trapped enough heat to help fuel heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods. The oceans grew in size as sea levels reached record highs this year — meaning any storm making landfall became even more deadly.
Some may say these are byproducts of progress, forging ahead with continued investment in the dirty fuels that release these long-trapped compounds into the atmosphere. But it’s not just indirect greenhouse effects — major population centers had to shut down for days at a time when choking smog reached levels that went well beyond the hazardous. The fossil fuels that once promised so much progress have turned on us.
Here are nine major reasons climate change — and the carbon pollution that drives it — helped make 2013 one of the worst years in human history.
1. Global CO2 levels hit 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history.
For the first time in recorded history, thanks to rampant burning of fossil fuels, CO2 levels in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million in May 2013. It’s a symbolic number — there is nothing fundamentally different about 399 ppm than 400 ppm other than that extra millionth of atmosphere. But just as we celebrate a new year, rue a birthday, or quail when gasoline hits $4 a gallon, the reader on an instrument in Hawai’i began with a 4 instead of a 3 for the first time ever. This instrument has helped record the data that forms the Keeling Curve, named after its originator.
“I wish it weren’t true but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400 ppm level without losing a beat,” said Ralph Keeling, a geologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography which operates Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory. “At this pace we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.” Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, started taking regular measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in 1958. Back then, the lowest the CO2 readings ever got was 313 parts per million. The last time they were that low was in 1960. Though CO2 levels vary over the course of a year as plants grow and die with the seasons, the trajectory has been a steady increase through the industrial era. This is driven by fossil fuel use, and leads to catastrophic climate change.
2. It’s getting hotter, faster.
In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fifth assessment report describing in detail what the world’s top scientists understand about climate change. Its conclusions? Scientists are more certain than ever (between 95 and 100 percent) that humans are causing the planet to heat up through greenhouse gas emissions. 1983-2012 was the warmest 30 years of the last 1400 years. The impacts of this planetary change are speeding up. This means that the globe, as a whole, is headed for 7°F worth of warming by 2100 if emissions continue unabated. Americans face a 9°F increase by then. Sea level rise is speeding up, dry areas are getting drier and we areas are getting wetter as the warmer atmosphere holds more moisture in it. The top ten feet of permafrost in the high northern latitudes is steadily melting, which is a problem because it holds twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does right now. The oceans are taking up greater and greater amounts of carbon dioxide, which portends acidified doom for many shelled aquatic creatures and anything that relies on them. The clarity of the report did not stop some outlets from ignoring, or getting it totally wrong. Some talked about a “slowdown” in warming that didn’t happen.
3. A huge number of animals and plants face extinction.
2013 offered sobering reminders that people aren’t the only ones impacted by climate change. The fourth IPCC assessment report projects that 40 to 70 percent of species could go extinct if earth warms by 3.5 °C, and a study this year found that many species could have to evolve 10,000 times faster to keep up with the expected climate change. Heavy rain in the Canadian Arctic is killing peregrine falcon chicks covered in down, and could contribute to a long-term decline in reproductive success in the population. As winters become warmer and shorter and the weather gets drier, pine beetles have wreaked havoc on forests across North America, from New Jersey to British Columbia. This year also saw more proof that migratory species in particular are threatened by climate change: a report from the National Wildlife Federation outlined the dangers migratory birds face from earlier and “false” springs, and another study found that one of the world’s great migrations — the long trek of millions of Christmas Island Crabs, requires meticulous timing that could be thrown off by changing weather patterns in the future.
With the oceans more acidic now than they’ve been at any time in the last 300 million years, scientists from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean warned this year that the “next mass extinction may have already begun.” Multiple species of marine plankton, which make up the base of the ocean ecosystem, are at some of their lowest levels ever seen as the ocean warms, a decline that’s poised to throw the entire marine food web off balance. The acidification muddles some fish’s brains and makes it hard for shellfish to grow their shells. And rising water temperatures and ocean acidification are causing jellyfish populations to explode in oceans around the world — one Oregon fisherman says his boat has caught 4,000 – 5,000 pounds of jellyfish.
On top of that, Brazil announced this year that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon increased by 28 percent between August 2012 and July 2013; the oceans are still on the brink of collapse due to overfishing; and spills of various kinds killed thousands of fish and animals this year.
4. The world suffered deadly heat, drought, and wildfires.
Much of the U.S. may be in a cold snap now, but 2013 was marked by extremes in temperature and precipitation, conditions that fueled deadly wildfires around the world. November 2013 was the hottest November on record. This summer in China, the worst heatwave in 140 years brought temperatures that reached above 105°F. Australia experienced its hottest month on record in January, hottest September on record and multiple major wildfires after an early start to wildfire season. Wildfires have taken a major toll in the U.S. this year too — this year’s fire season didn’t break records in terms of number of fires or acres burned, but due to the tragic Yarnell fire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters, it was the deadliest for firefighters in 80 years. In June, Colorado experienced its most destructive wildfire in state history (which made the state’s “Biblical” flooding a few months later that much worse) and California was hit by its third-largest in state history, a fire that burned through 402 square miles. By August, thanks to budget cuts, the U.S. Forest Service was forced to divert $600 million from other areas to continue fighting fires.
For the past 13 years, much of the western U.S. has seen so little rain that scientists think the dry spell could be a “megadrought,” a trend that could continue for the next several years. The drought has wreaked havoc in many states — it helped exacerbate deadly wildfires in Colorado, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon. The drought forced New Mexico ranchers to sell much of their cattle, driving livestock levels in many regions of the state to about one-fifth of normal levels. “It’s all changed,” John Clayshulte, a third-generation New Mexico rancher told the LA Times. “This used to be shortgrass prairies. We’ve ruined it and it’s never going to come back.” Though they were bad in 2013, these extreme events are likely to only become worse in the coming years.
5. Choking pollution shut down population centers.
When it comes to air pollution, China’s had a bad year. The world’s most populous nation imported more coal in 2013 than any country in history, and even though demand slowed in 2013, that still meant more than the 7.7 billion tonnes consumed in 2012. What happens when a country like China burns that much coal? In January, Beijing experienced its worst air pollution on record. Bloomberg compared the particulate matter in Beijing on that January day to an airport smoking lounge, and found that China’s air had nearly 30 micrograms per cubic meter more particulates than a smoking lounge. Since then, conditions haven’t improved in China. In October, air pollution nearly shut down the entire city of Harbin, forcing schools, roads and the airport to close. In some parts of Harbin, fine particulate matter reached levels of 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter — readings 40 times the level of 25 or less micrograms per cubic meter that the World Health Organization considers ideal for human health and more than three times the level of 300 that’s considered hazardous. And in December, extreme air pollution forced children and the elderly in Shanghai inside for at least seven days. These extreme cases of air pollution have made the Chinese government take note, however — it unveiled a plan to fight the pollution in September and doubled its renewable energy capacity this year.
6. Countries suffer disasters, but still commit to doing even less about emissions.
This year, Australia experienced its hottest month on record in January, hottest September on record and multiple major wildfires after an early start to wildfire season. But in September, Australians elected Liberal party leader Tony Abbott as their new prime minister, a man who, once in office, quickly got to work making good on his anti-climate change campaign promises. Abbott axed Australia’s Climate Commission, the group responsible for studying and providing information to Australians on how climate change is affecting the country, just a few weeks after he was elected. Abbott has vowed to eliminate the country’s carbon tax and also wants to cut the country’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Climate Change Authority, a group that provides advice to the government on carbon emissions reductions targets. Japan arrived at the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poland with bad news. Instead of committing to stronger emissions targets, or even just standing pat and announcing it would stay true to its current commitments, it told the world that it would cut its 2020 target from 25 percent to just 3.8 percent below 2005 levels. Japan has been hit with deadly typhoons that become more deadly as the sea level rises, and in August Tokyo recorded its warmest daily low temperature in modern history. And the best that the international negotiations to cut global emissions could muster was “modest progress,” with a hope for a big breakthrough in 2015.
7. Sea levels broke records, amplifying the effects of storms and floods.
In March of this year, global sea levels hit a record high, according to a report by the World Meteorological Association. One thing that many people don’t realize is that the primary reason sea levels have risen recently is because the ocean is warmer, and warmer water takes up more space than cooler water. So sea levels will rise no matter how much land ice melts (though there was plenty of that too). The IPCC report found that 90 percent of the trapped heat from 1971 to 2010 has gone into the oceans. Since 1901, the seas have risen 19 centimeters, or 7.5 inches, and they have been rising more and more quickly. Recently that rate has been 3.2 millimeters per year. Because of currents and local geographic actors, the rate of increase is different around the world, and the coastlines of the Philippines have suffered over three times the sea level rise as the global average. So when Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the island nation, flooding and storm surges were much worse than they otherwise would have been. At current rates, levels may hit 30 inches higher than they are now by the end of the century. This makes every storm riskier, from the the Gulf to the Mid-Atlantic, as the world saw last year when Super Storm Sandy hit. Rising seas also pose a danger to animals, with one out of six threatened or endangered species in the U.S. are at risk from rising seas.
8. Much of the world is doubling down on fossil fuels.
To stay on just the 2°C (3.6°F) warming path, the world will have to do even better than the 17 percent cut below 2005 levels that the U.S. and other developed countries have aimed toward in international negotiations. A study earlier this year found that developed countries will have to lower emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels at the end of the decade to stay below a 2°C rise. But global oil demand was higher than projected this year. The U.S. is stepping to the plate. Big Oil’s drive to make the U.S. the world’s top oil producer made some big strides in 2013. America now exports more oil than it imports, for the first time since 1995. What does this fossil fuel bonanza mean for regular people? Exploding oil trains. More exploding oil trains. Oil pipeline spills. More oil pipeline spills. Oil pipeline explosions. Oil barge spills. Leaky oil refineries. Earthquakes linked to fracking. Globally, the end result of all of this oil production is ever-rising global carbon dioxide emissions, which hit 36 billion tons in 2013.
9. We are woefully undercounting methane emissions.
Many people point to natural gas as the solution to rising carbon emissions because compared to oil and coal emissions, it releases less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The main ingredient of natural gas is methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. When burned, methane still releases CO2, just less than other fossil fuels do. The first bit of bad news is that this year, the IPCC reported that methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than originally thought. This means that compared to a molecule of carbon dioxide, a molecule of methane is about 34 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year time scale — and 86 times more effective over 20 years. The second bit of bad news is that not all the methane gets burned, and much more of it leaks out of the natural gas production process than originally thought. The EPA, and others in the natural gas industry, pegged total leakage from natural gas production at around 1.5 percent. But several new studies this year suggest that leakage rates are actually more like 3 percent, or 6-12 percent, 9 percent, or even 17 percent. If that is true, it becomes harder to argue that natural gas is so much better for the climate than coal is. Again, coal emits more carbon dioxide (and other dangerous pollutants) than gas does, but if enough methane leaks before the gas can even be burned, that advantage dissipates. A 3.2 percent leakage rate is the threshold beyond which, at a certain point, gas is no better than coal for the climate. If these studies are true, then that appears to be the case, and natural gas is not the happy bridge to renewable fuels that many hoped it would be.