The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

2021 was climate chaos. Let’s make 2022 better.

Last year marked the fourth-warmest year for the United States

A bird takes a bath last summer in a puddle at Sauvie Island Farm just outside Portland, Ore., where a record-breaking heat wave brought highs of 116 degrees. (ALISHA JUCEVIC/For The Washington Post)
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2021 was characterized by one weather disaster after another.

It kicked off with the record-breaking Texas freeze in February, exacerbated by a warming Arctic. In June, a devastating western heat wave destroyed crops, melted pavement and fueled wildfires. Massive droughts across the western United States affected farmers from Kansas to California during the growing season. Then, just after Christmas, record dry and warm conditions contributed to the Colorado wildfires that destroyed nearly 1,100 homes, burned more than 6,000 acres and forced 35,000 residents to evacuate.

This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared 2021 the fourth-warmest year on record for the United States. According to analysis by NOAA, NASA and Berkeley Earth, the past seven years have been the warmest in recorded history globally.

That we continue to break these records year after year is no coincidence. The more heat-trapping gas emissions from human activities build up in the atmosphere, wrapping an extra blanket around the planet, the warmer the planet gets. And the warmer it gets, the more intense, more dangerous, more costly and more frequent our weather extremes become.

According to NOAA, in the 1980s there was $1 billion weather and climate disaster every four months, on average. Today, there is a new one almost every three weeks. In 2021, there were 20 in total, the second-most on record. No matter where we live, we are all being affected by global weirding, as climate change loads the weather dice against us.

In a world that seems increasingly chaotic, it is hard to read yet another catastrophic headline. This is especially true about a global issue such as climate change, when you don’t feel as if there is much you can do about it.

Why we shouldn’t give in to climate despair

You might go to a lot of effort to change your lightbulbs, eat more plants and take public transport or buy an electric vehicle to reduce your personal carbon footprint.

But then you hear that the progress we made in 2020 to cut emissions — largely because of pandemic isolation — will be lost as Americans get back into their cars, start to travel more and buy more goods online — and you wonder, why even bother?

U.S. emissions surged in 2021, putting the nation further off track from its climate targets

You cannot stop a wildfire or solve climate change all by yourself, but you can make a difference. Each of us can. Climate is changing because of human choices. And that means that every one of us has a role to play in choosing a different future. And when you do, you’re not alone.

2021 wasn’t just about disasters. It was about action, too.

In the middle of a global pandemic, I saw medical doctors and health professionals using the most powerful force we all have, their voice, to call for change, strive for solutions and demand action.

I met with lawmakers and representatives from countries at the front lines of climate impacts who are doing everything they can to help those most affected.

I saw farmers in West Texas, where I live, working to make their pastures and ranches more sustainable and profitable.

I listened to grandparents, parents and children in Glasgow, Scotland, during COP26 marching for cleaner water, healthier air and a better future.

I talked with entrepreneurs and organizations that are developing new technologies and leveraging the power of nature to take up carbon and protect biodiversity.

A majority of us are already worried about climate change. Our biggest problem is not that we do not care; it is that we do not know what to do.

That is why I am convinced that 2022 is the time to build on that momentum. And how can you start? By doing something — anything — and talking about it!

Cut down your food waste. Talk to your employer about doing an energy audit of your building or installing EV chargers in the parking lot. Join an organization that shares your values and advocates for change. Call Congress to demand action.

And wherever you are, talk about how climate change affects the people you love, the places you love, the things you love, and how it is affecting you or your community. Talk about what you are doing, and why, and how others could join you.

We cannot change the world by ourselves. We have to do it together. And the first step is to connect our heads to our hearts and to our hands — so we understand not just what’s happening to our world, but why we care and what we can do about it.

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who studies climate change and why it matters to us here and now. Hayhoe is a distinguished professor and endowed chair at Texas Tech University and Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy. She is the author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World (One Signal/Simon & Schuster, 2021).