From record Arctic ice melt to freak storms, droughts and heat waves, 2012 was the year when climate change became almost daily news. The World’s environment editor Peter Thomson joins host Marco Werman for a look back at the year just ended and ahead at what to watch for in 2013.
MARCO WERMAN: There’s a somewhat reassuring image online this New Years day. I’m looking at it now, it’s a satellite image taken yesterday of the top of the world locked up in ice, from the southern tip of Greenland to the Bering Sea.
That’s the way things should look up there this time of year.
But it was a much more disturbing picture just a few months ago… when the Arctic ice cap reached record lows.
The unprecedented ice melt was one of the biggest environmental stories of a year.
And that’s saying something in a year where environmental news often pushed wars, economic crises and even a presidential election off the front pages.
Here with us now for a look back at 2012 and ahead to 2013 is The World’s environment editor, Peter Thomson.
So how are you going to remember the year that’s just finished, Peter?
PETER THOMSON: Well Marco I remember sitting here with you almost exactly a year ago and predicting that 2012 would be the year in which climate change really stopped being mostly a slowly-developing story and started becoming daily news. Now I wasn’t going too far out on a limb. That prediction was based on trends of the past few years in which it was becoming clear that climate change was moving faster than just about anyone had imagined just a few years before and was starting to really affect the daily lives of people around the world. But of course I had no idea what the year would actually have in store.
I mean, just looking here at the US. We had that bizarre March heat wave, which sped up spring by several weeks and started setting off alarm bells about climate change around the country. Then starting in June we had the massive heat wave and drought that dried up crops all across the middle of the country. And of course in the fall we had Sandy. It was a storm that many weather watchers say was the most bizarre and damaging that they’ve ever seen.
And as you mentioned at the top, we also had the unprecedented melting of ice in both the Arctic Ocean and Greenland.
WERMAN: And Peter, I have to say I noticed a real change in the way these kinds of stories were reported. In the past it was rare for news reports to draw a direct connection between extreme weather events like the ones you were talking about in the US and climate change. But last year it seemed journalists were a lot less hesitant to at least raise the question.
THOMSON: Yeah, and that’s really the result of two converging trends. One is that these previously weird and rare weather events are just becoming more common. And that roughly fits the pattern that scientists have been telling us to expect. So in effect, the real world is starting to look more and more like the forecasts, which of course reduces the doubt about the science. Then on the other hand, the science itself is becoming much better and scientists are starting to be able to tease out the influence of climate change on particular weather events.
Of course no one can say “this weather event was caused by climate change…” It’s more a matter of how much climate change is influencing the weather. Although I think we can say for just about certain that the melting in the Arctic IS the result of climate change. And as we’ve reported, that warming may well be playing a role in some of these other weird weather events around the world.
WERMAN: So let’s look ahead to the remaining 364 days of 2013. What are some of the big stories you’ll be watching?
THOMSON: Well climate of course is still going to be huge, as it will be for the rest of our lives. And that’s actually one of the big challenges, for journalists, is how to cover a story that’s immensely important but also at some point just sort of fades into the fabric of our lives and becomes sort of the new normal. So we have to find ways to tell small slices of the story along with the big picture.
WERMAN: Now one slice of that story that a lot of people have been watching is the proposed Keystone pipeline. What’s going on there?
THOMSON: Yeah, that’s coming back around for a very important decision in the next few months. You remember that a year ago president Obama basically put it on ice by ordering a new environmental review of the project. The state department needs to sign off on it because the pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta would cross into the US on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Climate activists have basically drawn a big line in the sand over that and it will be interesting to see what happens in light of a couple of big changes from a year ago.
One of course is that President Obama is no longer facing reelection, so the politics are very different. Then there’s the fact that the secretary of state, who has to rule on the plan, is likely to be John Kerry, and Kerry has been a leading voice in the senate on pushing for action on climate change. So his ruling on Keystone will tell us a lot about whether or not he and the president will bring a new emphasis on climate to the second Obama administration.
WERMAN: And what about you Peter, what are some of the environment stories that your curiosity’s really driving you toward this year.
THOMSON: Well I’m going to be looking more and more for stories on the struggle to find solutions to the climate crisis, which in effect mostly means stories about innovations in energy. The world is still pretty much in gridlock when it comes to big picture of international agreements to cut climate pollution but there are really interesting things happening around the world in energy policy and technology, from place like Ireland and Japan to even to places like Ghana. So we’re going to try to get to as many of these hopeful stories as we can.
So stay tuned.
WERMAN: The World’s environment editor Peter Thomson, thanks.
THOMSON: Thank you Marco…
WERMAN: You can see that map of the Arctic we mentioned, and hear highlights from our 2012 environmental coverage, at the world dot org.
You can also read Peter’s latest blog post, inspired by our interview last week on the environmental challenges facing reindeer herders in the far north.
It’s a look back at the lessons from his first reporting trip to the Arctic 15 years ago.
That’s all at the world dot org.
Highlights: The World Environment 2012