Did This Year Move the Needle on Climate Change?

Climate action was needed more than ever in 2022. Here’s what changed—and what didn’t.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
Damage is seen in Turkey’s Mugla province.
Damage is seen in Turkey’s Mugla province.
A track through a forest delineates the damage from wildfires in Turkey’s Mugla province on Aug. 7, 2021, during the country’s deadliest wildfires in decades. YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

2022

This year, the need for climate action was more apparent than ever. Partly, this was evident in extreme weather events around the globe, from Pakistan’s monsoon flooding to Europe’s heat waves. But it is also a simple fact: As the world barrels toward 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—the threshold set in the Paris Agreement—only rapid and unprecedented measures by governments can forestall catastrophic climate hazards. It’s a target that’s not yet dead but on “life support,” said Frans Timmermans, the European Union’s climate chief.

Yet many of the international climate discussions in 2022 felt eerily similar to those of years past. Like its predecessor, the recent United Nations climate change conference (known as COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, left many people disappointed. At last year’s COP26, countries failed to outline a clear plan to limit warming, and at the last minute, the final pact’s language around phasing out coal was weakened. This year, COP27 negotiators in Egypt could not commit to phasing down all fossil fuels, thanks in part to oil-producing countries’ efforts, and did not form a plan to further curtail emissions.

That is not to say progress has not been made. Notably, at COP27, deliberations finally brought an agreement to establish a “loss and damage” fund, where wealthier countries would compensate vulnerable countries for the rising costs of climate impacts. Although key details still need to be worked out and little money has been pledged thus far, the fund has been hailed as a victory for developing countries that have fought for it for decades.

This year, the need for climate action was more apparent than ever. Partly, this was evident in extreme weather events around the globe, from Pakistan’s monsoon flooding to Europe’s heat waves. But it is also a simple fact: As the world barrels toward 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—the threshold set in the Paris Agreement—only rapid and unprecedented measures by governments can forestall catastrophic climate hazards. It’s a target that’s not yet dead but on “life support,” said Frans Timmermans, the European Union’s climate chief.

Yet many of the international climate discussions in 2022 felt eerily similar to those of years past. Like its predecessor, the recent United Nations climate change conference (known as COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, left many people disappointed. At last year’s COP26, countries failed to outline a clear plan to limit warming, and at the last minute, the final pact’s language around phasing out coal was weakened. This year, COP27 negotiators in Egypt could not commit to phasing down all fossil fuels, thanks in part to oil-producing countries’ efforts, and did not form a plan to further curtail emissions.

That is not to say progress has not been made. Notably, at COP27, deliberations finally brought an agreement to establish a “loss and damage” fund, where wealthier countries would compensate vulnerable countries for the rising costs of climate impacts. Although key details still need to be worked out and little money has been pledged thus far, the fund has been hailed as a victory for developing countries that have fought for it for decades.

Meanwhile, after tumultuous negotiations, the U.S. Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act in August, earmarking $369 billion for energy security and climate funding—the largest investment for climate action in U.S. history. Though flawed—its trade-offs include provisions for fossil fuel development—the act was seen as a major win for the climate movement. “It marks the moment at which for the first time, a sufficiently powerful coalition of interests has emerged around green energy in the United States to demand its own industrial policy,” FP columnist Adam Tooze said on the Ones and Tooze podcast. “It’s the tipping point where the balance between fossil fuel interests and renewable energy interests in the United States became much harder to call than it has previously been.”

As the world sought to respond to new climate threats and avert future ones, Foreign Policy covered, among other things, the human impact of this year’s climate disasters, the intricacies of COP27 negotiations, and the effects of the war in Ukraine on the renewable energy transition. Our contributors also stepped back from the news to consider some of the questions looming over climate negotiations: Why has it proven so difficult to agree on and implement mitigation efforts? And what, exactly, should a just energy transition look like?

Here are five of our top stories on how 2022 shaped international climate action—and what might come next. 


1. What if Democracy and Climate Mitigation Are Incompatible?

by Cameron Abadi, Jan. 7

If there is one thing climate scientists have stressed in recent years, it is the urgency of the climate threat—and the need to act now to prevent its worst consequences. But what if democracy isn’t up to the task?

That’s the question FP’s Cameron Abadi seeks to answer in his essay on democracies’ failures to take meaningful climate action. Already, Abadi points out, most countries have fallen short of their Paris Agreement commitments to limit warming. The problem, he writes, is twofold: On the one hand, modern democratic processes tend to be slow and deliberate by nature; on the other hand, powerful lobbies have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Democracy, Abadi writes, “works by compromise, but climate change is precisely the type of problem that seems not to allow for it.”

This failure to act has given rise to a variety of radical political actors, from Extinction Rebellion organizing strikes to courts forcing climate action to billionaires with the potential to finance technological ventures to cool the planet. Looking outside of traditional politics may or may not offer solutions, Abadi writes, but the rise in climate radicalism suggests that democracy as it exists today might not be sufficient to save the planet.


2. Europe’s Climate Chief: The 1.5-Degree Goal Is on ‘Life Support’

by Ravi Agrawal, Dec. 4

After COP27, FP’s editor in chief, Ravi Agrawal, interviewed Timmermans, the executive vice president of the European Commission tasked with leading the bloc’s climate strategy. Throughout their conversation, Timmermans offers insights into some of the biggest questions on climate today, including: What were the key takeaways from COP27? Will India be able to meet its targets? Can Washington and Beijing cooperate on climate? And how feasible is a target of 1.5 degrees Celsius—or even 2 degrees Celsius—of warming now?

“If we don’t reduce emissions, there’s no amount of money on this planet that would be enough to fix things when we overshoot [a rise in temperatures of] 2 degrees [Celsius] or even worse,” Timmermans told Agrawal. “We need to get back to the conversation where countries who are not big emitters force the big emitters to do more.”


3. The Way We Talk About Climate Change Is Wrong

by Priya Satia, March 11

In the West, people often refer to climate activism as a sacrifice. If people consume less, the logic goes, they can protect future generations. Yet this language of sacrifice, historian Priya Satia argues, reveals that people are stuck in a colonial mindset. “It was precisely by training their eyes on the future … that previous generations became profligate with the Earth’s resources,” Satia writes.

Now is the time, Satia writes, “to question our assumptions about what is desirable, to recover from a consumption-driven, hyper-individualistic way of life to which we were never entitled and that has depended, from the first, on enslavement, genocide, ecological destruction, and alienation from ourselves, the land, and other beings.” Only in abandoning this instrumental approach to the Earth’s resources, Satia argues, can people properly care for one another and the planet.


4. Pakistan’s Farmers Are Already Bracing for the Next Disaster

by Betsy Joles, Nov. 16

Men stand on the highway surrounded by floodwaters in Pakistan.
Men stand on the highway surrounded by floodwaters in Pakistan.

Men stand on a highway surrounded by floodwaters near Khairpur Nathan Shah in Dadu district, Pakistan, on Oct. 20. Betsy Joles photos for Foreign Policy

In her dispatch from Pakistan’s Sindh province, journalist Betsy Joles reports on the toll of one of the year’s worst climate disasters: the flooding that killed more than 1,700 people, affected more than 33 million people, and led to billions of dollars in economic losses.

Millions of farmers in Sindh, the worst-hit province, faced widespread crop losses and fields submerged in floodwaters long after the monsoons passed. As one farmer told Joles, “The wheat is gone, our houses are gone too, [and] our beds are also gone.” The government offered farmers support to plant the winter wheat crop, but long-term concerns around rising food insecurity, poverty, and extreme weather in the future remain.

Joles weaves reporting on the ground with analysis on global discourse around climate action and who should fund it. After all, Pakistan—which contributes less than 1 percent of global emissions—led the charge for loss and damage at COP27. As Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister, told Foreign Policy, “These are entitlements for countries that are on the front line of somebody else’s carbon legacy.”


5. Shifting Mining From the Global South Misses the Point of Climate Justice

by Thea Riofrancos, Feb. 7

One of the issues at the heart of the energy transition is that it relies on the mining of critical minerals. Mining, of course, is a dirty business, which is why countries in the global north offshored it decades ago. But those governments are now finding that as demand for these materials—particularly, lithium—grows, they are struggling to keep up. And relying on other countries, such as China, to mine and process these resources poses significant geopolitical risks. In response, the United States and European Union are looking to set up lithium and other critical mineral supply chains within their own borders.

Yet political scientist Thea Riofrancos argues that moving mining is not a silver bullet. “The emerging map of lithium extraction poses a challenge for global justice,” Riofrancos writes. “While enticing extraction to the global north appears to alleviate the harms of extraction in the global south, in reality it may do little to ensure a globally just energy transition.” What may be required instead, Riofrancos argues, is a reduction in mining—and consumption—altogether as well as support for the community members who live and work at the sites of extraction.

Chloe Hadavas is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hadavas

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