The year 2019 was punctuated by a series of deadly, devastating natural and man-made disasters. Starting with fires ravaging California, the year ended with fires in Australia. Amazon wildfire, cyclones, hurricanes, water crisis and rising pollution bore bad tidings. All the catastrophes pointed to the climate crisis. But 2019 was also the year in which millions of people were galvanised into action. Even as some world leaders like US President Donald Trump dismissed 'climate change' as a conspiracy theory, the year's scorching temperatures and other disasters pushed students, activists, scientists and politicians to act.
Here are 10 events in 2019 that indicated it was high time the world acted against climate change
About 8,000 koalas have died since the fires started, as the slow-moving animals are unable to escape the flames. Photo: Shutterstock
Australia's ongoing bushfire nightmare
Wildfires have turned southeast Australia into an apocalyptic nightmare and threatens to wipe out forests and species of animals. While bushfires are not new to Australia, the situation this time has been catastrophic because of record-breaking temperatures, extended drought and strong winds. The extreme heat follows the driest spring on record. On September 9, the historic getaway Binna Burra Lodge in Queensland was destroyed in the fire. On November 11, New South Wales issued a “catastrophic” fire danger rating for the first time in the decade. In December, thousands of residents and tourists were forced to evacuate southeastern Australia as bush fires razed scores of buildings. Military ships and aircraft were deployed. Around 12 million acres have been burnt by bushfires so far. Ecologists say about half a billion mammals, reptiles and birds have been killed since the fire started in September. They estimate that about 8,000 koalas have died since the fires started, as the slow-moving animals are unable to escape the flames.
The devastating bushfires confirmed what scientists have been saying for a while: Australia’s fires will become more intense as climate change worsens.
Scientists say Amazon is reaching a point after which it may degrade into a dry savannah. Photo: Shutterstock
Amazon forest fire
In 2019, Brazil had more than 93,000 fire outbreaks, most of which were agricultural. Illegal land-grabbers also destroyed trees so they could raise the value of the property they seized. Amazon, which is also referred to as the 'lungs of the world', witnesses fire outbreaks every year. However, the fires in 2019 were more intense than in previous years — up more than 60 per cent from the same time the previous year, and the highest number since 2010.
Most of these fires were illegal and were degrading the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink. Scientists say Amazon is reaching a point after which it may degrade into a dry savannah. At a time when the world needs billions of more trees to absorb carbon and stabilise the climate, the planet is losing its biggest rainforest.
People from 1,400 villages in 15 districts of Bihar were left stranded. Photo: Reuters
Bihar and Assam floods
It usually rains heavily in Bihar during August, instead of July. But the year 2019 was different; the sheer amount of rain the state received in July took it by surprise, and it was caught unprepared.
Some Bihar districts received record-high rainfall during on July 12 and 13, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). The incessant rain led to flooding. People from 1,400 villages in 15 districts of Bihar were left stranded. The flooding caused 130 deaths by the end of July and around 8.85 million people were affected. Choked, damaged and dysfunctional drainage systems added to the woes of people. The floods were so severe that animal carcasses were seen on the roads.
Around the same time, over 90 people died in Assam due to flooding. Over 4.6 million people and 1.6 million animals were affected by the calamity. Pictures of rhinos trying to reach higher grounds at the Kaziranga National Park also surfaced on the internet.
Delhi air pollution. Photo: Reuters
Cloud of choking smoke and dust descended upon the 20 million residents of Delhi as winter came. It seems to have become a yearly affair now. The dirty air arose from weather conditions, urban emissions, and crop burning converging over India’s capital region. In November, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal took to Twitter to describe the city as a “gas chamber”. Some air quality index monitors maxed out with ratings of 999 as pollution levels reached 50 times what is deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Residents gather to fill empty containers with water from a municipal tanker in Chennai | Reuters
Water crisis in Chennai
Chennai, which in 2015 was in news for unprecedented floods that drowned the city for many days, made headlines in 2019 for just the opposite reason. Due to a deficient monsoon in 2019, the state’s water reservoirs dried out; their combined storage came to almost zero. Schools had to be shut. Restaurants and hotels ran out of business and taps ran dry. With most of the city’s water supply dependent on water tankers, the impact of the water crisis last year was disproportionately felt by the poor. While a 9,000-litre tanker from the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board (CMWSSB) costs Rs 700-800, private companies charged Rs 4,000-5,000.
Destruction caused by the extremely severe cyclonic storms Fani. Photo: Reuters
Typhoon and cyclones in 2019
There were eight cyclonic storms in and around India last year. Of them, a record six intensified into ‘very severe’ cyclones, affecting the lives of millions of residents of coastal regions of India and neighbouring countries. Tropical storm Pabuk in January, extremely severe cyclonic storms Fani and Vayu in April and June, respectively, Hikaa storm in September, Kyarr in October, cyclonic storms Maha and Bulbul in October, and Pawan in December — all in the Indian Ocean — marked the highest number of cyclones in a single year since 1976. Typhoon Hagibis and Faxai, meanwhile, caused a lot of damage in Japan. The year ended with Typhoon Phanfone (also known as Typhoon Ursula), which killed at least 28 people in the Philippine on the Christmas Day. So far, over 50 people have died and damages to agriculture amounts to over $61.1 million.
Hurricane Dorian is regarded as the worst natural disaster in the history of Bahamas. Photo: Reuters
The archipelago of Bahamas faced the most intense tropical cyclone on record in the form of Hurricane Dorian. This is regarded as the worst natural disaster in the history of the country. The catastrophe killed 673 people and caused destruction along the Eastern seaboard from the Bahamas to Canada. At least 70,000 people were left homeless. Dorian left behind around $3.4 billion in damage.
According to experts, California is about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than it would have been without climate change. Photo: Shutterstock
December 2019 saw over 7,860 incidents of wildfires in California and about 259,823 acres of land was burnt. The year's spate of devastating wildfires caused billions of dollars of damage to property, hundreds of thousands of acres were burnt, and residents fleeing their homes were driven up and down the state. But, the damage could have been worse. The fires were less destructive than in the previous two years, partly because of the state's preparedness this time around. However, the threat of bigger blazes is still on the horizon. According to experts, California is about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than it would have been without climate change.
Representative image. Photo: Shutterstock
Drought in India
In 2019, India witnessed the second-driest pre-monsoon season in 65 years. It received 23 per cent less than normal rainfall between March and May, according to IMD. As a proportion of long-time average, South India received 47 per cent rainfall, northwest India 30 per cent, central India 28 per cent and east and northeast 14 per cent deficient rain. About 42 per cent of India’s land area faced drought, with 6 per cent exceptionally dry in the month of March. Parts of the Northeast, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Karnataka were the worst hit.
In the face of natural and man-made calamities, campaigns like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion came as a silver lining in 2019. Photo: Reuters
Protests against climate change
The 25th Conference of Parties (CoP 25), which overran to become the longest climate summit, turned out to be a damp squib. In the face of natural and man-made calamities and as world leaders failed to be ambitious on climate change mitigation, campaigns like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion came as a silver lining. Around 5,000 global protest rallies were held on one weekend in September alone, with four million people participating. The face of global protests during the year was Time’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg. She confronted world leaders at the UN Climate Change Summit, saying, "How dare you?". She condemned them for failing to act against climate change. Inspired by grassroots movements like Occupy and the non-violence of Gandhi and Rosa Parks, Extinction Rebellion turned into civil disobedience to persuade governments to see the urgency to tackle climate breakdown.