What does it tell us about the state of our politics when climate activists feel the need to hurl food at priceless works of art? Why did the United Nations Secretary General tell the world that the most important climate target is “gasping for breath”? What major victory did nations most vulnerable to climate change achieve in the past year?

Let’s take a moment to look back at all that and more to see what 2022 will be remembered for in climate politics.

Dire countdown

A telling indicator of how well the world is succeeding in addressing the climate crisis is the ominous record that 2022 is likely to set: highest ever carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

That ongoing failure to wrangle emissions downwards has dire implications for the vital goal of preventing the worst-case climate scenarios, which requires holding global average warming below 1.5 C relative to pre-industrial times. An ominous September study suggests that several dangerous climate tipping points are likely to be triggered beyond that temperature threshold.

But starting from January 2023, just nine years of emissions at current levels will be enough to wipe out even a 50-50 chance of meeting that goal. There is currently “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place,” the United Nations Environment Programme warned in October after assessing countries’ existing policies for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, those policies put the world on track to warm by just under 3 C by century’s end.

‘Hope-killing’ rains

Yet even if by some political miracle the 1.5 C target is preserved, we would still be left with a more dangerous planet, of which 2022 provided ample examples. People in Europe caught glimpses of that future world in the continent’s worst drought conditions in 500 years. People in China saw it in their hottest summer on record. North Americans saw it in hurricanes Ian and Fiona. And worse occurred elsewhere.

Across three countries in the Horn of Africa — Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia — millions of people experienced food insecurity this year due to a prolonged drought born of five consecutive failed rainy seasons. More than a million people in Somalia alone were displaced as a result. “The people left behind, they have no chance,” noted one displacee. “It is just a matter of time until they die.”

Analysts attempted to grapple with the multiple and complex systemic threats — COVID-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation, food insecurity, and climate change — now intersecting with and amplifying one another.

And while water was too scarce there, across the Indian Ocean it was too abundant. In late summer, Pakistan experienced what one observer called the “hope-killing rains” of an unabating, supercharged monsoon.

“When you look from a height to the horizon, you just see water and water. And this water is following you everywhere, every height you go, the water immediately after some time reaches you, and then forces you to move somewhere else.”

About 1,700 people were killed, and economic losses stretched into the billions, with one-third of the country left inundated during the worst of the flooding.

Loss and damage

These glimpses into the world potentially awaiting us highlight the importance of a key breakthrough at this year’s global climate talks (COP27).

Developing countries managed to secure the creation of a global Loss and Damage fund to finance the recovery and rebuilding of poorer communities following climate disasters. Rich countries most historically responsible for climate change have for decades opposed the creation of any such fund. For them to finally drop their obstruction took reassurances that their contributions to the fund would not be interpreted as accepting liability — as providing compensation — for any historical wrongdoing.

Still, this was a victory, one that opens a new frontier of struggle. And, like the efforts to convince rich countries to provide enough financing around the world to transition away from fossil fuels and adapt to a more dangerous climate, loss and damage, too, will be an uphill battle at a time of myriad disruptions.

It’s perhaps worth noting here that 2022 was the year that “polycrisis” and other similar terms came into wide usage as analysts attempted to grapple with the multiple and complex systemic threats — COVID-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation, food insecurity, and climate change — now intersecting with and amplifying one another.

The art of protest

Early this year, activists with Just Stop Oil, a coalition of climate groups in the U.K., realized that they would need to go back to the drawing board.

Their campaign of blockading oil refineries in April failed to attract much public attention, let alone achieve their goal of pressuring the government to stop issuing licenses for oil and gas development.

And that’s how one October day in London’s National Gallery, Vincent Van Gogh’s 1888 painting Sunflowers — or more precisely the glass protecting it — came to be covered with tomato soup.

As Anna Holland and Phoebe Plummer, the young activists who carried out the splattering, each finished gluing a hand to the wall beneath it, Plummer challenged the world to think about what really matters: “What is worth more: art or life? Is it worth more than food? More than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”

If the reigning political and economic system is failing people and the planet, it continues working wonders for the fossil fuel industry.

Through the fall, other paintings were similarly targeted, including Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Claude Monet’s Haystacks, Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life, and, here in Canada, Emily Carr’s Stumps and Sky.

The general response among the public was annoyance and confusion, and even voices in progressive political and climate justice circles debated the efficacy and wisdom of the tactic.

Rather than take up that matter, let’s recognize that the actions are most revealing as a sign of disempowerment and marginalization amidst democratic dysfunction. There is a longstanding democratic deficit with respect to climate change: if our democracies were healthy and functional, we would not find ourselves in a climate crisis.

With that in mind, Plummer’s remarks seem much more damning: “Right now, there’s 33 million people [affected] by floods in Pakistan, thousands of people are dying of starvation in Somalia due to extreme famine from crop failure. And it took two young people throwing soup at a painting to get more people talking about the climate crisis than the millions of lives that have been destroyed by climate disasters has.”

‘Enough to buy every politician, every system’

If the reigning political and economic system is failing people and the planet, it continues working wonders for the fossil fuel industry.

The oil sector alone has pulled in $3 billion in profits per day for the last 50 years — enough, in the words of the analyst behind that figure, to “buy every politician, every system.” Its reckless influence leaves collateral damage even beyond the politics of energy; the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied Ottawa this year in opposition to public health measures had seeds in populist pro-fossil fuel movements gestated by the industry.

Even this late in the game, fossil fuels attract far more investment from rich nations and multilateral banks than renewables do. In Canada, taxpayers look set to pay $21 billion for the Trans Mountain pipeline meant to promote the development of tar sands oil in the midst of the climate crisis.

The industry is so unrestrained that it is prepared to unleash “carbon bombs” — vast stores of fossil fuels that would annihilate any hope of preserving a safe climate — including some here in Canada.

Next year and beyond will need some stunning victories to reverse things. But this year did introduce a few dynamics that could undercut the industry’s long-term prospects.

The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States with its $370 billion in climate spending was an important — if insufficient — step in decarbonizing the world’s most influential economy. And the effects on global energy security stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent clear signs of the shocks the world’s economies are vulnerable to when reliant on a volatile world fossil fuel market.

In 2023 we will see whether popular forces around the world can use those dynamics to press for a safer climate.