The past year has been characterized by very visible climate impacts — record-breaking heat, floods, and other natural disasters. An ongoing megadrought led to increasingly pressing concerns over the future of water security in the American West. Hurricanes pummeled Puerto Rico, Florida, and much of the Eastern seaboard. And cities and towns in between experienced searing heat, torrential floods, and epic snowfall. Despite the obvious signs of planetary peril, the industrialized world continues to fall short of the emissions goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
But through it all, some hard-earned victories have given climate advocates reasons to be hopeful. In August, the United States passed its most meaningful piece of climate legislation ever with the Inflation Reduction Act, a win that caught many by surprise after months of gridlock. The law will make roughly $369 billion available for cutting emissions and protecting frontline communities. Last month, negotiators at COP27 worked through challenging conditions to forge a historic agreement to establish a fund for loss and damage — a critical step toward global climate justice. And on smaller stages everywhere, businesses, organizations, and individuals are advancing their own solutions, from increasingly widespread technologies like heat pumps to nature-based initiatives like wetland restoration.
We took a look back at some of the biggest climate stories from the past year and asked 23 experts to forecast what 2023 holds in a few key areas: water, ecosystems, politics and policy, mitigation and adaptation, technology, and business. Their predictions provide a glimpse of what progress could look like in the months ahead, and a rubric for measuring success. (Comments have been edited for length and clarity.)
A critical juncture for water security
Almost 47 percent of the U.S. including Puerto Rico remain parched by the worst drought in 1,200 years, a crisis impacting 196 million people. It is particularly acute in the seven western states that rely on the Colorado River for much of their water. The region’s continued growth and the drier, hotter conditions of a warming world have so imperiled the river that lakes Mead and Powell — two of the nation’s largest reservoirs — reached record lows in 2022. Federal officials have told those states to reduce water usage by as much as 4 million acre-feet per year, or face mandatory cutbacks. The steps they take in 2023 could radically shape the lives of more than 40 million people throughout the west, impact 5 million acres of agricultural land, and influence water policy nationwide.
The next wave of conservation
Marine, forest, and wetland ecosystems sequester vast quantities of carbon dioxide and provide an essential defense against the impacts of climate change. In 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act marked a major recognition of the government’s role in protecting and managing these imperiled spaces. It allocates roughly $22 billion to, among other things, conserve wetlands, restore coastal habitats, preserve old-growth forests, and reduce fire risks for communities in forested regions.
Much of the IRA is focused on technological solutions to the climate crisis. But the legislation, along with other funding streams and programs, also recognizes an essential truth: Nature is a profound ally in the fight against climate change, and by saving it, we save ourselves.
Politics & Policy
Political momentum for climate and climate justice
Climate policy got off to a rough start in 2022. By July, President Biden’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions was faltering, and the Supreme Court had limited the government’s ability to regulate that pollution. Yet political will to address the crisis proved remarkably resilient. The Inflation Reduction Act squeezed through Congress. The predicted “red wave” in the midterm elections didn’t materialize, and eco-friendly governors and state legislators won key races, with roughly half of all voters calling climate change a top concern in one pre-election poll.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has delivered some wins for environmental justice, with initiatives like a new EPA office dedicated to that goal and a promise to allocate at least 40 percent of federal climate investments to historically disadvantaged communities.
The coming year will show whether action can match up to promises. Congress and the courts could stymie further progress, or even throw a lasso around gains already made. And the Inflation Reduction Act, a historic victory for climate mobilization, will present challenges — as well as opportunities — in its implementation.
Mitigation & Adaptation
Reactions to a year of climate disasters
Climate change has, for years, been making fires bigger, heat waves hotter, and hurricanes stronger. But even by that measure, 2022 was extreme.
Appalachia and the region around Yellowstone National Park saw record-breaking floods. More than 104 million people nationwide suffered from dangerous heat on a single day in July alone. Nearly 70,000 wildfires scorched over 7 million acres, predominantly in the American West — the largest number of fires in the past decade. Hurricanes Fiona and Ian barreled into Puerto Rico and Florida, killing at least 150 people and causing billions in damage.
Such events were, in the words of one expert we spoke to, an eye-opener for many — but shouldn’t have been. Ninety percent of U.S. counties have experienced a weather disaster of some kind in the past decade. In 2023, the ways in which we address, prepare for, and respond to such extreme weather events will not only impact our climate future, but will shape our very existence on earth.
New voices and spending in clean energy
The windfall provided by the Inflation Reduction Act is designed to encourage more institutions and individuals to participate in the transition to clean energy. It should help car manufacturers establish a domestic electric vehicle supply chain, and make it easier for families to buy EVs — accelerating an already growing market for EVs. It will offer tax credits for solar and offshore wind projects, and incentives to help households electrify their appliances. In 2023, the impact of these new funds will start to become clear. But without circular pathways for the materials needed to ensure widespread electrification, these technologies won’t go far in mitigating our climate impact.
Business models that prioritize sustainability
In a capitalistic economy, profitability and sustainability often seem at odds. But when a billion-dollar company decides to give away all its profits, or a venture-capital firm invests millions in circular businesses, it begins to feel like that might finally be changing.
This year, retail businesses explored ways of generating revenue without extracting new resources, a key principle of a circular economy. Investors demanded more meaningful signs of good ESG, ones that went beyond how well companies protected themselves from climate risk to examine their own impact on climate and communities. Such practices have, in the past, been relegated to companies and investors known to prioritize sustainability, but others are now showing that there is money to be made in sustainable, circular, and equitable businesses.
As 2022 ends with some of the biggest Wall Street firms backpedaling on their climate commitments, 2023 is poised to demonstrate whether there is building momentum, as well as consumer demand, for change.
Reporting by Gabriela Aoun Anguilera, Avery Schuyler Nunn, Claire Elise Thompson. Editing by Jaime Buerger, Chuck Squatriglia. Art direction by Mia Torres.