Last year was the warmest in recorded history. What does 2024 have in store?
For starters, it is almost certain to be another scorcher. The naturally occurring El Niño will push up temperatures in much of the world and humans will continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
That will very likely mean more extreme heat, like Phoenix saw last summer in a record streak of days that hit 110 degree Fahrenheit or higher. It will mean more wildfires, like the ones that torched Canada, Europe and North Africa. And it will mean more unusually hot ocean temperatures that threaten coral reefs and melt glaciers.
But we’ll be keeping track of more than just the weather and temperatures this year. Here are six other big stories we’ll be watching:
The U.S. presidential election
President Biden’s signature legislative success has been the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which turbocharged investment in clean energy. Biden has also strengthened emissions regulations and laid the groundwork for tackling industrial pollution. But more action looks unlikely if he fails to win a second term.
Donald Trump, who holds a commanding lead for the Republican presidential nomination, leads Biden by 46 percent to 44 percent among registered voters, according to a December Times/Siena poll of registered voters.
And if Trump returns to the White House, much of Biden’s work on climate change could be in jeopardy. During his four years as president, Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, rolled back environmental protections and promoted an across-the-board expansion of fossil fuels.
A second Trump term would most likely see more of the same. Mr. Trump has recently spoken on the campaign trail about expanding oil and gas drilling, and vowed to renege on the U.S. pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund.
If Trump wins, Republican operatives have prepared a comprehensive plan to undo federal efforts to address global warming: Shredding regulations to curb greenhouse gas pollution from cars, power plants, and oil and gas wells; dismantling almost every clean energy program in the federal government; and increasing the production of fossil fuels
Fossil fuel production
The United States is already the largest producer of oil and gas in the world, and even more production is on the way.
Globally, more money is being put toward the development of new clean energy than fossil fuels. Last year, investments in solar outpaced investments in oil for the first time.
Those trends look set to continue, but renewable energy developers also face challenges ahead.
The offshore wind business has been battered by rising costs, shaky supply chains and volatile interest rates. Proposed solar and wind farms are running into problems getting permits. Nimbyism continues to get in the way of many new clean energy developments. And even when projects do get built, they face hurdles connecting to a power grid badly in need of a large-scale expansion.
For the U.S. to come close to achieving Biden’s goal of 100 percent renewable power generation by 2035, a lot will have to go right.
Global finance reforms
Pressure has been building on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to overhaul the way they help developing countries adapt to climate change.
In recent months, the World Bank has made some changes, agreeing to pause debt and interest payments for nations hit by natural disasters, and helping establish accountable marketplaces for carbon credits.
But the same old problems continue to bedevil poor countries looking for help navigating a rapidly warming planet. It is far more expensive to build new clean energy projects in the developing world than in the United States or Europe, because many risk-averse investors are less likely to finance the projects.
More is at stake than many people realize. With more than a billion more people in need of reliable access to electricity in the decades ahead, it matters greatly whether that power will be generated by fossil fuels or renewables. Wind and solar plants could give the world a chance at keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But building a new generation of gas and coal plants across the developing world could put that goal out of reach.
One of the surprise stories of 2023 was the surge in climate-related lawsuits. Children and young adults in Montana won a victory against the state over its support of fossil fuels. California sued big oil companies, accusing them of downplaying the risks that global warming poses to the public. And municipalities in Oregon, New Jersey and beyond brought cases against companies like Exxon, Chevron and Shell.
Expect more lawsuits to be brought against fossil fuel companies and the governments that support them with subsidies and rubber-stamp permits. Some of those cases could see their days in court. In particular, there a decent chance that a landmark case brought by Massachusetts against Exxon could go to trial in 2024.