2014 in review: hard science and historic climate pledges

US and China made friends, Russia and Ukraine split up, while scientists warned of catastrophe

(Pic: US Embassy/The Hague)

(Pic: US Embassy/The Hague)

By Sophie Yeo

In the climate history books, 2014 will go down as the year the presidents of the US and China stood together and announced that both would reduce their emissions.

For these two superpowers, that November day was a historic moment of cooperation in the fight against climate change.

It followed the biggest ever demonstration for climate action in September, with some half a million people marching through New York and other cities and heads of state pledging their commitment.

These important moments – and others – will determine whether the world is successful when it comes to sign a new climate treaty in Paris next year (the sad plight of the jumping snail perhaps less so).

Here is RTCC’s month-by-month account of what mattered most in 2014.


The year began wetly; some might say apocalyptically. As record rainfall hammered the UK, forcing the subject of climate change into political debate, scientists set the Doomsday Clock at “five minutes to midnight”. This was a response to climate change pushing the world towards catastrophe, they said.

Meanwhile, the EU Commission proposed a target to reduce the bloc’s carbon emissions 40% by 2030, which they spent close to a year trying to confirm.


US activists vowed to continue fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, in the face of a State Department report downplaying its climate impacts.

If the report raised questions about the White House’s commitment to tackling emissions, secretary of state John Kerry did his best to dispel them the following week. On a visit to Indonesia, he compared climate change to “weapons of mass destruction”.

Surprisingly, some of the strongest messages came from Russia – though not from the Kremlin. Athletes gathered for the Winter Olympics in Sochi warned that climate change was threatening winter sports.


The UN’s climate body marked its 20th birthday; a bittersweet celebration as evidence mounted of its failure to achieve the greenhouse gas emission cuts needed to avert dangerous climate change.

The UN’s IPCC report warned that the impacts of climate change were already serious, while the Marshall Islands were flooded by massive tides, and one US army expert told RTCC that the impacts of climate change would be like a “100-year war”.

US senators held an all-nighter to prove they were onto the problem, while on the streets of Washington, 398 activists were arrested for chaining themselves to the White House in protest against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Protesters chain themselves to the White House (Pic: Joe Brusky/Overpass Light Brigade)

Protesters chain themselves to the White House (Pic: Joe Brusky/Overpass Light Brigade)


TS Eliot called April the cruelest month. Many will have been inclined to agree when they saw Exxon Mobil’s report, which said that political efforts to limit emissions were so weak that they would have no effect on their plans to extract oil over the next 25 years – oil that would be burned, worsening climate change.

Not all businesses were so blasé: Unilever CEO Paul Polman said that tackling global warming was the only way to grow the economy.

Another UN science report estimated the action needed to limit temperature rise to 2C would only reduce economic growth by 0.06% a year. Unfortunately, not everyone covered these developments as well as RTCC; the BBC came under fire for inaccurate and biased coverage of climate stories.


Shell joined Exxon Mobil’s chorus with its own letter to shareholders dismissing the “carbon bubble” idea that climate action will make some of its oil “unburnable”.

Stanford University joined the divestment movement, in contrast, announcing that it would end its investments in coal.

Scientists discovered the West Antarctic ice sheet was on the road to an unstoppable collapse, which could raise oceans by several metres.

India got a new prime minister and we had a look at what Narendra Modi meant for the climate.

(Pic: Narendra Modi official/Flickr)

(Pic: Narendra Modi official/Flickr)


Everyone thought president Barack Obama’s ruling that power plants must reduce their emissions 26% by 2020 would be the US’s big climate announcement of the year. Spoiler: this was trumped in November.

Secretary of state John Kerry hosted a star-studded summit on ocean acidification (read: Leonardo Di Caprio was there).

Less ostentatiously, Denmark approved a climate law putting in place an emissions reduction target twice as ambitious as the EU’s, while China completed the roll-out of its seven pilot carbon markets.

A simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine tore apart one of the UN’s climate body’s closest alliances.


Australia was on the receiving end of global outrage after it axed its carbon tax, in what many saw as prime minister Tony Abbott’s most backwards move on climate to date.

There was a scuffle in Venezuela, as activists at a government-sponsored event called for an end to capitalism in the name of tackling climate change.

In this context, a decision by the World Council of Churches to divest from fossil fuels appeared heaven-sent. No less a figure than World Bank chief Jim Kim endorsed moved to take money out of climate-destroying sectors.

Meanwhile, in an omen of things to come, John Kerry hinted at “common ground” between the US and China on climate change.


Hopes in Whitehall for a quiet summer month were dashed when RTCC revealed that the UK had slashed its budget for climate diplomacy by 39%, leading many to question its commitment to the UN’s new climate deal.

India’s interest in the climate was also called into question when it was revealed Modi would not be attending the UN climate summit in New York.

The planet hit “overshoot day” on 19 August, a day earlier than the previous year. This is the point where consumption of resources overtakes the natural world’s ability to renew them.


The climate world was a hive of activity in September; luckily, the NATO summit provided an opportunity to catch one’s breath, as global warming was entirely ignored by defence ministers more concerned with Russia and Afghanistan.

The New Climate Economy report made the financial case for climate action, while around half a million people marched in cities across the world in the largest climate protest in history.

All this built up to a UN summit hosted by Ban Ki-moon in New York, where world leaders spent a day telling each other how committed they are to fighting climate change.

Pic: Climate Action Network International/Flickr

Pic: Climate Action Network International/Flickr


After almost a year of wrangling, the EU council confirmed the central goal of its 2030 climate and energy policy framework would be a 40% cut in emissions. In a victory for greens, they inserted “at least”, leaving the door open to ramp up ambition in the event of stronger global action.

RTCC revealed that a group of climate scientists and sceptics had met over dinner in an effort to civilise the debate. Former UK minister Owen Paterson called for the Climate Change Act to be repealed in a speech to a sceptic think-tank.

But the UN’s IPCC synthesis report emphasised the evidence humans are warming the planet is “unequivocal”. While government officials and scientists met in Copenhagen to agree the wording, Desmond Tutu preached a sermon on the need to protect God’s creation.


A surprise pact from the US and China crushed the idea that climate politics are staid and predictable.

The secret deal, months in the making, was closely followed by a $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund by the US, to support climate action in poor countries. Other countries topped the fund up to $9.3 billion during a pledging session in Berlin.

A tense day on Capitol Hill saw the Senate reject the Keystone XL pipeline bill by one vote – but a Republican takeover of Congress in the midterm elections means it is likely to be revived next year.

Meanwhile, we asked whether Putin would kick up a fuss at the UN climate talks.


While everyone else is thinking Santa and snowflakes, December in the world of climate change means just one thing: UN negotiations.

Diplomats met in Peru for two weeks of talks, which concluded in a late-night agreement setting the world on a path towards Paris next year, where a global deal should be signed.

With a few extra pledges, including a surprise contribution from Australia, the Green Climate Fund hit its $10 billion target.

For the third year running, a typhoon hit the Philippines during the talks, in a reminder that extreme weather is already intensifying as a result of human-caused climate change.

Maybe we’re also thinking a little about Santa and snowflakes – or the lack thereof. Finland is warming faster than the global average, which could put even Lapland’s white Christmas in doubt.

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