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2019: The year of climate consciousness

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
December 27, 2019

Wildfires across the world, Arctic ice rapidly melting, seas rising, habitat loss — 2019 bore bad news for the climate. But it was also the year millions of people were galvanized into action.

Symbolbild Klima 2019
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/B. Zawrzel

Year on year, the climate news only seems to get worse. Temperature records are broken, and broken again, the extent of polar ice melt exceeds expectations, while efforts to cut emissions lag behind targets. And 2019 was no exception.

Yet something else happened this year. 

Dire warnings by the IPCC and other experts, images of blazing forests and news of mass biodiversity loss helped make 2019 a year of climate activism. Greta Thunberg's school strike went global, environmental protests stepped up a gear and people began talking not of climate change but a climate crisis and a climate emergency

These were some of the defining climate events and images that made 2019 the year of climate consciousness. 

Raging wildfires

Fires raged across the world throughout 2019, wiping out biodiversity and releasing the carbon stored in trees and plants. This was the year we saw the Amazon burn like never before and flames sweep the Arctic tundra. 

Here are some of the most devastating wildfires that occurred in 2019.

Arctic melt speeds up 

In 2019, the average air temperatures in the Arctic were almost 2 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal. Temperatures in Greenland reached highs of over 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit) in June, causing rapid ice-sheet melting.

Huskies pulling sleds through ankle-deep meltwaters on top of an ice sheet around 1.2 meters deep in Greenland
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Danmarks Meteorologiske Institut/S. . M. Olsen

A photograph of huskies pulling sleds through ankle-deep meltwaters on a Greenland ice sheet powerfully illustrated this. It was taken by a Danish climatologist whose work in Greenland was made difficult and dangerous by the rapidly changing conditions. 

This year, the summer melt was the second-lowest level ever recorded. The 13 lowest sea ice extents in the satellite record have all occurred in the last 13 years, according to the annual Arctic Report Card  by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States.

And that has global repercussions.

The Arctic works as a giant freezer for the planet. Arctic snow and ice reflects the sun's energy back into space, cooling the entire planet. But as the ice retreats, a vicious cycle is set in motion. With less snow and ice on the water, more heat is absorbed by the ocean, which is further accelerating ice loss.

On top of this, the Arctic itself may now be contributing to climate change. The frozen ground of the Arctic, also known as permafrost, contains lots of carbon which is released when it starts to thaw. This carbon then turns into a greenhouse gas, which so far has been absorbed by plant life growing in the summer, but this year it has started escaping into the atmosphere.

Thawing Arctic permafrost could be releasing as much carbon as Japan.

Russland | Hungernder Eisbär taucht in der sibirischen Stadt  Norilsk auf
A hungry polar bear walks on a road in the Russian city of Norilsk hundreds of miles from its natural habitatImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Yarinska

Meanwhile, Arctic animals — like the polar bear — are losing habitat. This year, starving polar bears were snapped scavenging for food in a Russian village hundreds of miles from their natural habitat, making for a startling image of our impact on nature coming home.  

Another polar bear video to go viral this year was of a young, emaciated animal that was washed up in a Russian village on a piece of ice, exhausted by its search for food. 

Rising seas threaten more cities that anticipated 

Climate change isn't just threatening wild habitats. New research published this year shows that rising seas could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought. Some 150 million people are currently living on land that could be submerged by mid-century.

A quarter of the current population of Vietnam, for instance, live on land, such as Ho Chi Minh City, that will likely be inundated. In Thailand, that figure stands at more than 10% of the population. Cities like Mumbai, Shanghai and Bangkok could also be wiped out. 

Panorama shot of Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City
Image: James T Clark

Fridays for Future goes global 

With all this bad news, it's perhaps no surprise that 2019 saw climate change loom larger than ever in public consciousness. And that awareness spurred unprecedented action. 

On August 20, 2018 a lone teenage activist – Greta Thunberg – skipped school to demand the Swedish government act on climate change. A week later she was joined by fellow students, teachers and parents in Sweden.

By March 2019, the movement had exploded across the globe, with students in 135 countries demanding their governments take action and forcing adults to confront the deeply uncomfortable image of a generation of children in fear for their future. 

Then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg holds a banner reading "school strike for the climate" in front of the Swedish parliament
Image: picture-alliance/DPR/H. Franzen

Fridays for Future students were soon joined by Scientists for Future, Parents for Future and Teachers for Future. On September 20, the largest climate strike yet saw some 4 million people of all ages take to the streets in more than 150 countries.

Extinction Rebellion shifts gears on climate activism

Alongside Fridays for Future, the big name in climate activism this year was Extinction Rebellion. 

The movement started in the United Kingdom in 2018 but like Fridays for Future, it went global in 2019 and now has groups in some 70 countries around the world.

Inspired by grassroots movements like Occupy and the non-violence of Gandhi and Rosa Parks, Extinction Rebellion is going one step further than waving banners and has turned to civil disobedience to drive their message home. 

Extinction Rebellion protesters have colored a local river in Zurich acrid green and stage a "die-in"
Image: xr-zuerich.ch

They have paralyzed traffic by blocking some of the busiest roads in major cities and unloaded a heap of horse manure in front of the Madrid climate talks. They've colored a local river in Zurich acid green, sprayed the British Treasury with gallons of fake blood and interrupted a Brexit debate with the buttocks of semi-naked protesters facing the chamber of the House of Commons.   

What they are most known for, though, is their "die-ins," where hundreds of people swarm public squares to collapse to the ground, symbolizing the deaths humanity faces if politicians don't do something, fast.

The year of climate emergency

One of Extinction Rebellion's core demands is that governments declare a "climate emergency." Oxford Dictionary chose the phrase as Word of the Year 2019, defining the term as "a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it."

In 2018, it was on hardly anyone's radar but in 2019, the words were blazoned across banners by protestors and dropped into speeches by politicians, and in November, 11,000 scientists declared a global "climate emergency."

Protesters in New York demand climate emergency by carrying a huge banner
Image: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/E. McGregor

Hundreds of cities around the world, as well as the EU Parliament declared a climate emergency in 2019, admitting that measures taken thus far to prevent a climate disaster aren't enough and promising to make climate change policy a priority.

Still, declaring a climate emergency isn't legally binding. Some local councils are committing to specific targets — such as reaching net-zero emissions earlier than their national government plans to — others are more vague in their promise to make climate change policy a priority and see the move as sending a message to citizens and the rest of the world to inspire change from the bottom up.

Climate conference falls short of concrete action

And local and grassroots action may be more important than ever, after the disappointing outcome of this year's COP25 climate conference.

Governments were expected to collectively agree on a deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions more rapidly. Yet the concluding resolution only endorsed the "urgent need" to close the gap between existing emissions pledges and the goals set at the 2015 Paris Agreement. Brazil, China, Australia, Saudi Arabia and the United States reportedly led resistance to bolder action.