When it comes to the environment, 2023 was filled with good news and bad news. Record highs were reported for global temperatures, while record sales took place for solar panels and electric vehicles. Here are the Top Ten environmental events in 2023 from my perspective in the southern United States.
1. Hottest Year in Recorded History
2023 was the hottest year in recorded history, adding to the credibility of the scientific predictions from the 1970s. The CO2 PPM (parts per million) reached 420.00, creating a global temperature rise of 1.15C compared to pre-industrial levels. This is the major culprit for a hotter planet as greenhouse gas emissions permeate the atmosphere and oceans, trapping the sun’s heat. The last time carbon dioxide levels on our planet were as high as today was more than 4 million years ago. In fact, there were a total of 86 days when global temperatures broke previous records, and two days when the global temperature actually reached the 2C level considered to be one of the tipping points for catastrophic events. One scientist summed up the year with this troubling statement, “This was the hottest year on record, and the coolest one we will experience for the rest of our lives.”
2. Record Electric Vehicle Sales
One piece of good news was the record sales for electric vehicles (EV) in the U.S., with sales surpassing the one million mark. EVs will reach 9 percent of the total new car sales market this year, up from 7 percent in 2022. While this is good news for carbon emissions, it falls short of the Biden administration’s ambitious targets of 50 percent by the end of the decade. There are several factors limiting EV sales. There is still a deficient number of electric charging stations in the country, even though the Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022, provided heavy government investment in this infrastructure. Currently there are 130,000 public charging stations in the country, but there is a need for more than 1.2 million. Cost is also a factor. While prices of EVs have dropped they are still out of reach for many Americans, with the average price around $53,000.
3. Canadian Wildfires
This past June I wrote about the haze in Charlotte, NC originating from the out-of--control wildfires in Canada. Normally in Canada, the wildfires begin on one coast and travel across the country to the other coast. This year they were happening everywhere at the same time. There weren’t enough firefighters in Canada to combat the blazes, so they recruited firefighters from all over the world. One of the 109 veteran firefighters from France said, “We have never seen anything like this in Europe.”
Most people believe the largest forests in the world are in the Amazon rain forests, but not so. The conifer forests in Canada are the world’s largest terrestrial carbon vaults on the earth. They are the planet’s best defense against carbon emissions, drinking them in and converting them to oxygen. The world lost over 11 million hectacres (100 square miles) of forests in Canada in 2023, more than double any losses in Canadian history.
4. Drought in the West
Ben Franklin once said, “You learn the value of water when the well runs dry.” The well has become drier and drier along the region running adjacent to the Colorado River in the current 22 year megadrought. The Colorado River feeds the U.S. largest water reservoir, Lake Mead in Nevada, along with its sister reservoir in Utah. At its peak, Lake Mead can hold up to 50 million acres of water, but has now dropped down to just 25 percent capacity (see image below). Climate change has elevated temperatures, reducing snowpacks, which are the major sources for water in the Colorado River. The river provides water for 40 million residents, farmers, ranchers and businesses, all feeling the pinch of a well running dry. Solutions being offered in multi-state levels discussion among government, business and agricultural leaders can be summed up with the phrase, “Get used to it. Brown is the new green.”
5. COP 28
At the end of the highly controversial UN climate summit (COP28) in November, I characterized the final document as “too little, too late.” The text of the unanimously adopted agreement called for countries to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner to achieve net-zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” It was a baby step in the right direction, but it fell short of the needed commitment to “phase out” fossil fuels. The COP summits have essentially been overtaken by lobbyists, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, who are incentivized to delay and distract the world from poisons their industries are spewing into our world.
6. Record Ocean Temperatures Push Marine Life Into Risk Zone
Record temperatures were not only felt on land, they were experienced among marine systems as oceans heated to their highest ever recorded levels. In places like Florida, coastal waters were so warm, surpassing 100F, people were warned to stay out of the water. Of course, the marine life inhabiting those waters have no choice but to stay. This was evident to me when I went snorkeling in Key West last year and compared that to what I saw 20 years ago. The colors were less vivid, the diversity was diminished and the abundance of schools of fish were reduced. I thought maybe it was the particular spot where I was swimming that created such a conclusion, but the locals said, “No, it’s been changing for years.” Scientists agree, attributing these shifts to climate change and warmer oceans around the world, prompting changes in circulation patterns, more frequent and more intense heatwaves, and massive die-offs among certain fish populations. This is creating stress on the fishing industry and contributing to international conflict over fishing rights.
7. The Ozone: An Example of International Cooperation and Success
In 1987, 197 nations committed to eliminating ozone-depleting chemicals in what came to be called the Montreal Protocol. At the time, the ozone was being depleted by human-manufactured chemicals, thus eroding the shield protecting the earth from the sun’s radiation. The positive outcomes of this international agreement are now becoming evident. At this year’s American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting, scientists reported that the ozone layer is projected to recover by approximately 2066 over the Antarctic, by 2045 over the Arctic, and by 2040 globally. Though the efforts to “save the ozone” are at a smaller scale, they offer a glimpse into what can happen when nations come together for the mutually beneficial objective of “saving the planet.”
8. Maui Fires
Many of you, like me, have family or friends who live in Hawaii. You were, no doubt, deeply distressed when you learned about the devastating wildfires that wreaked havoc on the island of Maui. More than 100 people were killed in this ferocious fire fueled by climate change, while thousands more were evacuated or displaced. Especially devastated was the town of Lahaina, Maui’s largest tourist destination. While the popular image of Hawaii is a tropical island with beautiful weather, climate change has exacerbated negative weather patterns, leading to 18% drop in annual rainfall. Drier conditions and winds from a distance Hurricane Dora, provided the backdrop for this raging inferno. As usual, it was the low-income residents whose lives were disrupted, much more than the tourists who simply were visiting or maintain second homes as getaways from their regular lives.
9. High Seas Treaty Gives Oceans a Chance
After nearly two decades of fierce negotiations, 193 UN member nations adopted the world’s first treaty to protect the high seas and preserve marine biodiversity in 2023. High seas is a legal term to describe the vast stretches of water that lie beyond national boundaries. They cover more than two-thirds of all the ocean and almost half the planet, serving as home for up to 10 million species and providing food for billions of human beings. Yet, these waters beyond national boundaries are mostly unregulated and only one percent is currently protected from the ramifications of climate change, like ocean acidification, and overfishing done by corporate fishing conglomerates.
The treaty provides for the common governance of about half the earth’s surface and 95% of the ocean’s volume. It will promote equity and fairness, tackle environmental degradation, fight climate change and promote biodiversity on the high seas.
10. Brazil’s New President
Another bit of good news in the world for the environment was the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil. His commitment to protecting the rain forests of Brazil stood in sharp contrast to the previous far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, whose four year tenure was characterized by a steady dismantling of environmental protections. Lula da Silva promised to lead Brazil, already a leading food producer for the world, into a period of green initiatives that would provide jobs and care for the planet at the same time. His election showed what a nation can do, when the people act in their long-term interests, as opposed to the short-term profit interests of big business and agriculture.
Christians Caring for Creation is committed to loving God and neighbor by loving all of creation. It is our Christians responsibility to learn how to care for this earth entrusted to us as a means to loving God and neighbor. We offer this piece of knowledge and information in order to help us make better decisions about caring for the earth and one another.