It was springtime at the start of a new decade when a series of explosions brought down the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April 2010, triggering the largest oil spill in US history. Footage of the plumes of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico flooded newscasts as 200 million gallons spewed out over 87 days. The sight was transfixing: the ugly lifeblood of industrialization no longer hidden away in pipelines, but unleashed.
It was the start of a decade that would force people and policymakers to come face-to-face with the unintended consequences of building a world by burning fossil fuels. Between then and today, broken temperature records, unnatural disasters, and homes lost would show just how catastrophically humans had transformed the planet. It’s been a decade of adapting to a new normal while clumsily figuring out how to safeguard the future from a climate crisis that’s only going to get worse.
The new normal
2019 marks the close of the hottest decade on the books. Seven of the 10 hottest years ever recorded on the planet have taken place since 2010. Not only has the globe’s average temperature run a persistent fever, but high temperatures spiked in individual locations around the world. In July 2019, during the hottest month documented in human history, a deadly heatwave swept through Western Europe, killing hundreds. Temperatures reached an unprecedented 108.7 degrees Fahrenheit (42.6 degrees Celsius) in Paris. Belgium hit an all-time high of 107.2 degrees Fahrenheit (41.8 degrees Celsius). The UK, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands all smashed records too.
At the North Pole, scientists were shocked to see temperatures reach a relatively balmy 35 degrees Fahrenheit in February 2018, which is a full 50 degrees warmer than usual for the season, The Washington Post reported. In 2012, Arctic sea ice cover dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded. The planet’s natural iceboxes were dramatically defrosting, and people were starting to take notice.
Iceland’s prime minister attended a funeral in August 2019 for the country’s first glacier lost to global warming. Where the Okjökull glacier once stood, a plaque affixed to a barren boulder as a “letter to the future” reads: “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
A year before mourners gathered in Iceland, sea ice had finally subsided enough for business interests to penetrate the storied Northern Sea Route, a shortcut between Europe and Asia. In September 2018, the container ship Venta Maersk crossed the Arctic Ocean on a route that had been far too risky for commercial vessels to take in the past.
Farther south, warmer waters were already whipping the seas into historic frenzies, providing more fuel for hurricanes and typhoons. What was, at the time, the most powerful storm to make landfall struck the Philippines in November 2013 with 30-foot waves and winds reaching almost 200 miles per hour. 6,340 people perished in the storm, although some survivors suspect that the government’s official number is an undercount. The storm stunned the world, but it wouldn’t be the last. The 2017 hurricane season hurled a triple-whammy at the United States and its territories with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria all striking within less than a month. Parts of Puerto Rico were plunged into darkness for nearly a year in the largest and longest blackout in the US and the second-largest in the world.
Scientists had linked global warming to more frequent and intense extreme weather events, but until recently, it was difficult to attribute the destruction of any one storm to climate change. That began to change this decade with the advancement of attribution science for extreme weather events. Thanks in part to computers with more processing power, scientists began pinpointing how much climate change contributed to individual events soon after they occurred. After Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, a pair of studies found that rainfall during the storm was boosted by at least 15 percent by human-caused global warming.
The perfect fuel for firestorms
While some places were inundated with water, others were parched. California’s longest drought spanned nearly the entire decade, from December 27th, 2011, to March 5th, 2019. The worst of it was in 2014, and another study later found that the intensity of the drought around that time was made up to 20 percent worse by the changing climate.
Arid conditions became the perfect fuel for firestorms that set more records this decade. The 2018 Camp Fire became the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history, killing 85 people and burning 18,804 structures. Paradise, California, a town leveled by the flames, became a rallying call for the threat of paradise lost in the Golden State. Now, drought and fire-hardened residents face yet another new normal: massive intentional blackouts aimed at preventing fires sparked by power lines.
Changing hearts and minds
As places transformed, so did the people. When researchers at Yale University and the University of Westminster studied what images people associated with climate change, they found a shift this decade. When they began their study in 2003, the majority of people surveyed thought of melting polar ice. By 2016, more and more people had weather top of mind.
Climate, to be clear, is not weather. It’s the difference between a trend and a one-off event. But with wetter storms and hotter summers unfolding over the course of the decade, people were making new connections between climate change and the weather. Seeing climate change through the lens of something they experience every day opens the door for people to see the weight of the issue over their own lives.
“Americans are just beginning to connect the dots and to say, wait a second, what’s going on here,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, a lead author of the study and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “There’s been this increasing dawning of awareness among many Americans that climate change is actually starting to harm people here and now.”
With heightened awareness came some action, too. New renewable energy projects outpaced new fossil fuel installations in worldwide growth for the first time in 2015.
In a pivotal moment for the whole planet, every country on Earth agreed to take on climate change when they adopted the Paris climate accord in 2015. That committed countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep the Earth from warming beyond roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a threshold that could be catastrophic for people and ecosystems if it’s crossed. It was the culmination of years of political wrangling. “It is rare to have the opportunity in a lifetime to change the world,” former French president François Hollande told delegates gathered on the final day of negotiations. “Seize it so that the planet can live on, so that humanity can live on.”
But cooperation, even when the health of the whole planet is on the line, can be a fragile, fleeting thing. After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he began the process of formally withdrawing the US from the Paris accord. One by one, Trump backtracked on existing federal efforts to cut down on pollution, too. The words “climate change” began disappearing from government websites and documents.
The whiplash from the US’s changing policy galvanized grassroots opposition, dedicated to taking on the monumental task of curbing planet-warming carbon emissions. “The public, the local and the state governments are pushing back,” Astrid Caldas of the Union of Concerned Scientists tells The Verge.
Race to save the planet
The real fight for Earth’s future is still just getting started. Since the Paris accord was adopted halfway through the decade, global carbon emissions have risen 4 percent. They are still climbing. The United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change dropped a bombshell report in 2018 that found that the world had already warmed by 1 degree Celsius and could exceed that precarious 1.5-degree threshold as soon as 2030.
Warming up a degree or two might seem like small beans, but consider this: at 2 degrees Celsius of warming, nearly all of the world’s coral reefs could vanish. Tens of thousands of people could lose their lives each year to extreme heat at 2 degrees of warming compared to meeting the 1.5-degree target.
People are starting to take matters into their own hands. The last decade was marked with lawsuits aimed at holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in heating the planet and covering up the evidence. Youth have sued the governments of Canada and the US for allegedly violating their rights by contributing to the climate crisis. They’ve walked out of classes en masse around the globe to protest inaction on climate change, making “climate strike” the Collins Dictionary word of the year in 2019.
All the firsts, worsts, and mosts of the past decade are early warning signals of more drastic changes to come — from either a new economy disentangled from fossil fuels or a planet transformed by our carbon emissions.
The changes won’t be the same for everyone across the board. “The issue of climate change exacerbating existing social inequities has come to the forefront,” Caldas points out. “We need to look after those people who are differentially impacted, the ones that are impacted and hit first and the worst.” The wealth gap, measured in per capita income between rich and poor nations, is 25 percent wider as a result of climate change, a 2019 Stanford study found. Small island nations like Kiribati are already grappling with the possibility of relocating citizens to other countries if rising seas drown their homes. Kiribati purchased land in Fiji in 2014 as its leaders contemplated “migration with dignity.”
America’s “first climate refugees”
In 2016, The New York Times designated the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Isle de Jean Charles as America’s first “climate refugees.” That year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development gave Louisiana $48.3 million to resettle Isle de Jean Charles’ residents. Their homes once spread across 22,000 acres of land. Now, just 320 acres, or just over 1 percent, remain above water.
Isle de Jean Charles is not far from the site of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon spill. Scientists observed years later that the spilled oil weakened the grip of marshland vegetation that stabilizes the soil with its roots. With the damage, an already eroding Louisiana shoreline and sinking wetlands slid farther under the water’s surface. It was an insult atop of existing injuries inflicted by shifting shorelines and sea level rise. Now, communities like Isle de Jean Charles are among the first to retreat from homelands that soon won’t exist, at least not above water. They’ll be the first to navigate new realities in the next decade and rebuild, but they won’t be the last.