2021 was an “oh shit” year for climate awareness. Catastrophic heat waves and hurricanes, rapidly rebounding emissions, and a sobering IPCC report were but a few things that made it abundantly clear that we have dwindling time to act — and the action we take today will, at best, stabilize our climate decades in the future. We’ve already sentenced ourselves to some level of damage.
But doom and gloom is never the full story. More awareness of this existential threat and the repercussions sure to come means that more people than ever are engaging with environmental and social justice issues. This year, the Keystone XL pipeline officially died, after a decade of organizing led largely by Indigenous water protectors. The pandemic prompted a bike boom that seems to be holding strong in many cities. Harvard divested from fossil fuels. Shareholders saw some wins in pressing oil companies like Exxon and Chevron to get real about slashing emissions. And although it’s not as ambitious as some activists and progressives had hoped, Congress has set in motion a record investment in climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.
To make sense of what this all means for the year ahead, Fix asked 22 climate and justice leaders about the changes they see coming in tech, infrastructure, food, energy, and culture in 2022. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of Fix’s What’s Next Issue, which looks ahead to the ideas and innovations that will shape the climate conversation in 2022, and asks what it means to have hope now. Check out the full issue here.
More doctors will join the climate fight
We’re in this remarkable moment of converging crises of structural racism, COVID, and the climate crisis. I think, as we hopefully find our way out of the pandemic in the coming years, that we [will] prioritize health in a way we never did before.
I think we, as a society and a world, feel a sense of vulnerability about our health that the pandemic has made us reckon with. That is front and center for me as a doctor, thinking about climate change as an issue of health equity. So my hope and my belief is that we are going to prioritize health in a way that we haven’t in a very long time — and that the vehicle of explaining climate action through the lens of its health benefits is going to be front and center.
Doctors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists are really going to need to play an important role. I am seeing, from my vantage point, a real groundswell of determination to join the climate movement. That gives me a lot of inspiration, that major dots are being connected in a way that I haven’t seen before.
EJ will cross regional boundaries
When we talk about deepening relationships, going into the next year, I think about setting up the framework for people and communities to be able to connect with each other beyond geographic barriers or things that keep them distant.
Networks like the Black Climate Alignment Network [are] seeking to grow the relationship of Black people and Black-led organizations working on climate and environmental justice across the U.S. What’s happening is that we’re saying, “Not in my community and not in any community.” The more that we can deepen those relationships, the less we have vulnerable communities.
There are these small pockets that have a whole lot of access in the areas of resources, power, education, and infrastructure that are positioning themselves to create those entry points for people to be able to access those resources. I think of organizations that are disrupting institutionalized philanthropy, like Hive Fund or US Climate Action Network. I see that growing into 2022. Communities have more tools to be able to talk about and name what they need, because they have the language to advocate for themselves.
The climate fight will reach critical mass
The amount of movement that’s happening around the globe when it comes to land defense strategies, when it comes to divestment, when it comes to these really effective methods of change — I see that growing.
I see a generation of concerned people who recognize that the climate crisis is not something you can mitigate, it’s not something that’s negotiable, it’s not something that is conceptual. The climate crisis is very real. The more I see folks stepping into their power and stepping into their agency, the more hope I find that we’ll at least try our best as human beings to not only try to put out some of the fires on the ship, but begin to really think about what we’re going to do when it comes to climate refugees and what we’re going to do to start preparing for things that are coming as we build the world that we want to see. A lot of them are building that world already.
The landback movement will protect biodiversity
The landback movement is going to change conservation forever.
There’s justice to be had in a mostly male, white-led conservation world. Many Indigenous peoples’ lands are currently under conservation easements that they don’t have access to for cultural purposes, for spiritual purposes, for subsistence purposes, for self-governance purposes. I think you’ll see the Indigenous peoples’ struggle and the climate struggle and the landback movement put pressure on not only the world of conservation, but those who fund it. And that will lead to some of the biggest Indigenous-led conservation deals in history in the next 12 to 36 months.
It’s going to upset the status quo, but it’s change that people should be leaning into even though it feels uncomfortable to them, because I think it will lead to more fossil fuels being left in the ground. It’ll lead to more subsistence rights for Indigenous people to be able to feed themselves and sustain their families, and to more protection of biodiversity that is absolutely fundamental for the survival of humanity and the fighting of climate change. I feel that we’re being listened to in a different way than we ever have been in some of these spaces. There’s a big power shift on the horizon.
Activists will keep art institutions accountable
I’m really hoping that, coming out of the Movement for Black Lives racial justice reckoning, the COVID crisis, and the escalating climate crisis, that our cultural and art institutions — and we’re really holding their feet to the fire on this — are more bold, and not more protectionist.
We’ve been a little nervous about some trends where it feels like, because they took a financial hit, these institutions are becoming more cautious and conservative at precisely the time when we need them to be bold and visionary.
These institutions play a significant role in mediating our understandings of nature and culture, and are considered very authoritative and trustworthy. So we really need to redouble our efforts and call on not just individual artists, activists, and cultural producers, but also our institutions that aggregate or collectivize artists and tell stories about our past, present, and future. We need all sectors of society to be coming together at this critical juncture, to push for the changes that we need.
Artists will build on the urgency for climate action
In past years, keywords like “emergency” and “awareness” were prevalent in the climate discussion. Today, and in the year ahead, I believe “urgency” and “action” will come to the fore as climate change continues to worsen.
In the year ahead, I see artists and educators continuing to teach us how to understand these changes, and inspire and empower us to act with urgency, wisdom, and purpose. I believe there will be more focus on imagining and creatively expressing adaptation and climate reparations for loss and damages. This will reflect and enhance the larger discussions happening in the climate movement.
Mainstream culture will cover climate in new ways
Fiction, especially science fiction, is starting to incorporate the climate crisis and climate change — so much so that there’s an emerging genre of fiction called cli-fi.
I think a lot of writers, authors, and people who produce a lot of other media like TV and video are starting to think about how they can incorporate climate change into their stories. And that inevitably involves imagining and visualizing a future.
I think there’s definitely been pushback against this end-of-the-world narrative that seemed to proliferate in 2020. The reason I do what I do is because there’s no room in our future for these dour, depressing, apocalyptic narratives. If we’re going to have a future, we have to be positive about it.
I think a lot of this is driven by the fact that a lot of Gen Z — and most of my students I consider Gen Z — are starting to become adults and think about it. So now it’s this realization that perhaps we can carve out a future that’s a little more optimistic.
It’ll be a make-or-break year for recycling
The challenge with recycling hasn’t been that there’s not value in the material. The problem is that the cost of sorting it out has been too high. Technology can significantly reduce that cost, and can do it for the existing infrastructure.
For [AMP Robotics], we can go into existing facilities and plug in our robots and that can have this huge cost reduction immediately. Just as critical, there is this push both on the legislative front that you’re starting to see, but also consumers pushing brands to use more sustainable packaging. And what this has done is driven up prices for recycled material. There’s much more of an incentive to invest in recycling infrastructure now than there’s ever been.
I think this next year is going to be the beginning of a phase shift for the industry, where interest, combined with technology, will start to have a meaningful difference in recycling rates. They’ve sort of stagnated over the last several years, and I think this is the year that starts to really shift. If we don’t see this happen, it suggests recycling isn’t going to be a meaningful part of the climate conversation. And that would be a real waste.
Big data will enter the climate equation
We’re going to be asking how we can [bring] the big data revolution to this question of evaluating where we stand on climate change policy, and whether the policies and technologies that we have in place can actually help us.
This is a critical question, because 2023 is the global stocktake for the Paris Agreement. All of the policymakers on an international stage are going to be evaluating not only what countries have delivered, but also what companies, city and state governments, individuals, and NGOs have done on climate change. The critical question going into 2022 is: How do we get that data quickly enough to actually answer those big questions?
We can’t solve the problem without engaging the big [tech] companies. They have more data and information on all of this than any government or any international institution or any individual. Google has its Environmental Insights Explorer, and they’re using traffic data to estimate transport-related emissions for 10,000 cities around the world. Being able to open up this data for good and for solving climate change is going to be the big question of how we get there in the next year.
‘Net-zero’ will start to actually mean something
Companies are going to need to take a lot more stringent action on climate. It’s no longer enough to say, “We have a carbon-neutrality program.”
These [science-based industry] standards just came out [quantifying] net-zero and what that means for a company, so there’s a lot more direction on what you can and cannot do. You can no longer rely on carbon offsets but not really change things in your value chain. The value chain is where we’re going to see more action, more initiative, and more companies hiring for roles that support their suppliers in reducing emissions.
One thing — and this might be more focused on fashion, but I see it in other industries — is the focus on “regenerative.” There are a lot more companies talking about regenerative agriculture and helping farmers and their suppliers transition to that. I’m seeing more companies wanting support in this area, or making investments and partnering with groups working on regenerative agriculture.
I’d like to see every single company on the globe get carbon smart, to know how big their greenhouse gas emissions footprint is and ways to reduce it. This should be and is becoming “hygiene” practice. From there, we need more transparency and accountability in how much reduction exactly has been achieved on an annual basis.
AI will take local utilities to the next level
I’m very excited about what’s happening with infrastructure, especially in the U.S. There’s been no significant investment in infrastructure since the Clean Water Act in the 1970s.
So it’s an exciting time — the funding is coming in, the technology’s maturing.
I believe artificial intelligence is the next huge technological innovation — like fire or electricity — that can push the human race to the next level. Bringing those tools into optimizing infrastructure is something that’s been happening in the last five years. The water industry is a little behind compared to other utilities. But I think in the next five years, you’re going to see more intelligent devices not only from a utility perspective, but from the consumer perspective: What is the water-quality status, how much water are you using, and is there a way you can reduce your water usage based on your consumption? I think it’s going to be a tremendous improvement in the next five years. People are going to adapt all these digital technologies to reduce their water loss and also plan for better infrastructure in the future.
Cities will embrace electrification
In the realm of the built environment and in the space of buildings in particular, we’ve definitely seen a shift where the world of electrification is becoming much more possible and much more present.
Existing buildings are going to be here for the next 30, 40, 50 years. How you get existing buildings ready for all these clean electrons will be a defining characteristic of how we make sure the built environment is doing what’s necessary to confront the climate crisis.
We’ve seen a much larger acceptance of the idea that this is possible in cities and towns, and we’re also seeing a lot of engagement around local policies that embrace electrification and decarbonization. The city of Ithaca, New York, voted to decarbonize its entire building stock, which is an incredible, first-of-a-kind decision for a [U.S.] city to make. Being able to support cities like that, which are taking investments from the federal government and using the power of local government to be where the rubber hits the road for local communities across the country, is going to be the hallmark of how we measure success.
Climate tech solutions will scale up
2021 was a breakthrough year for climate tech. The sector received much more direct, sustained attention from the public, the media, and investors.
Climate tech startups saw $30.8 billion in investment in the first three quarters of 2021, more than any full year in history. Areas that could have been previously described as subsectors or technology niches — such as electric vehicle charging or carbon accounting — are turning into major industries in their own right.
In 2022, the challenge will be turning this attention and capital into the innovation and rapid deployment we need to decarbonize at scale. For climate tech startups, this means working with some of the biggest companies in the world. That’s what we enable at Powerhouse — our biggest goal for this coming year is to connect as many globally leading corporations to the startups and technologies that are building the path to net-zero.
We’re also seeing a shift in how startups, investors, and corporations are addressing the climate crisis. As we continue to feel the impacts of climate change, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are increasing their focus on adaptation and resilience in addition to decarbonization — for example, Sust Global and Overstory. Meanwhile, we’re seeing an expanded focus on equity and frontline communities from both investors and founders — for example, Dollaride and Solstice. This next year will be a key test of how much we can move from merely talking about resilience and equity to actually implementing novel solutions at scale using the billions of dollars that have been committed.
Community-level solutions will spread and scale
We’ll see a lot of groups looking at how to implement some of the solutions they’ve advocated for, because there is some funding. Although it’s not enough, it’s a start.
One of the primary things that we’ve been working on for quite some time is weatherization and relieving energy burdens, and getting communities of faith involved in caring for their community. With the Justice40 funding that’s coming, as well as some of the funding we have in Build Back Better, we have the opportunity to scale that up. However, I must emphasize the only way we do that is by ensuring that equity is at the forefront of all we do.
The statewide agencies need to be looked at, and there needs to be a directive on where that funding goes. I think the best way to do that is by implementing community advisory boards that help figure out the communities that are impacted the most. I also know that the environmental justice burden mapping that [U.S. Representative] Cori Bush put out will help with that. When it comes down to this climate crisis, we can ill afford to leave anyone out.
Indigenous farming will show what’s possible
We have more food than ever before in the history of the world, but it’s hoarded in places like the U.S. And even in the U.S., it doesn’t get to where people need it. We need to center Indigenous voices and leadership to understand what could be done.
I continue to see Indigenous projects that don’t get enough funding, but they are super important for all of us. I think of one in the Southwest in the Tohono O’odham community: There are people going back to traditional farming in the desert where it can be over 110 degrees. Those seeds are adapting to climate change as we go along, year after year.
We need to think of growing food as a concept that the Indigenous people have been figuring out for thousands of years and will continue to. Indigenous values and Indigenous leadership is what we need to look at for all aspects of climate change, whether it’s growing food, keeping companies in check, preventing mining in Mexico and South America, or defending the Amazon forest.
The chorus of small farmers will get louder
[One thing] that I expect is more attention on farmer voices, on people who are doing community-based food systems and food sovereignty projects.
I see more engagement of different sectors to bring their voices forward, to create platforms for voices to be heard. For example, this year, we had a group of small farmers — who are mostly not recognized by the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture — [hold] a press conference on how different programs, especially funds from FEMA for Hurricane Maria, were not being distributed equally. Many small farmers across rural Puerto Rico don’t have access to those funds. You have the Puerto Rican Farmers Association going to the Capitol and talking about that. You have others bringing attention to how the relationship with the U.S. generates inequality and more suffering.
So I see more engagement from different communities in bringing their voices forward. People are more empowered, but tired of those persisting inequities. And I think there are more community-built platforms for people to come together and bring visibility to those overlooked or ignored issues.
Customers will demand receipts for climate action
With no time to waste, empty words about climate action aren’t enough. Customers want to see receipts from the companies they support.
In the last couple years, many Americans have been trapped inside, not only because of COVID but because of the horrible air quality from record-smashing wildfires. We’ve all felt the effects of these dramatic weather changes and have been impacted directly or indirectly by extreme heat, storms, and freezes. As billion-dollar climate disasters continue to skyrocket, many businesses are feeling the pinch as well — breweries included. Barley farmers reported 2021 as the worst crop in their lifetimes due to unrelenting heatwaves. The hop crop also took a big hit in 2020, as the plant’s aromas were ruined by wildfire smoke. In Fat Tire’s own watershed, we experienced the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, rendering the river water black with sediment and unusable for brewing, while freezes like we saw in 2021 exacerbated the pandemic-suffering supply chains, stalling deliveries of key brewing ingredients.
There’s only so much we can do in our daily lives when just 100 companies are responsible for nearly 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And just 30 percent of global Fortune 500 companies have an actual climate action plan (for example, they are on the SBTI and RE100 registries). If businesses get on board with real, measurable GHG reductions and goals — like the Science Based Targets initiative to limit warming to 1.5-degrees C — we can avoid the worst of climate change and still enjoy a good, cold beer.
Vertical farming will transform cities
Alternative ways of farming to supplement traditional agriculture, specifically vertical farming, is not a question of “if” anymore; it’s a question of “when.”
How we increase equity with regard to food is something people are starting to look at. Vertical farming is positioned to be a leader in that local food revolution.
As we all grapple with climate change, we have to understand that we need systemic solutions and not just point solutions. A business or a farm has the ability to address multiple issues. They can do much more than grow food sustainably. They can grow futures as well — not only within the jobs that we create but how we distribute this food. How do we utilize technology and pair it with underserved populations that don’t have access to meaningful employment? How do you use technology to get food to people in food deserts? The innovation is positioning technology in a humane way, with humanity, and it’s something we need to see more of.
Cities will tackle stormwater systems
People are looking forward to the money that’s coming down from the federal government to advance some of the goals around infrastructure improvement that they’ve had for quite some time.
I’ve also had conversations with communities about technology, thinking about how we can employ sensors to monitor things like stormwater quantity and quality to make informed decisions about development.
We have to move past these incremental, small-scale solutions and start to think about large-scale transformations of how we do business around the systems that we develop and install. A lot of discussion around this infrastructure bill has been focused around transportation systems, but what good is a pristine road or newly developed transit system that’s flooded out because the area has inadequate drainage or green space to manage stormwater runoff? We have to think about the interconnectedness and interdependence of these systems, and leverage that to inform how we prioritize and plan for the rollout of these dollars.
The U.S. will follow the E.U. on carbon policy
The biggest advance in carbon pricing is the expectation that the European Union will impose a carbon border adjustment.
The E.U. plans to collect a tax on the entry of goods into its market from countries that don’t have a price on carbon dioxide. This won’t occur until 2023, but the fact that it is moving and seems undeterred — though it had some pushback — is going to have an impact on the rest of the world. Even Russia is contemplating a carbon tax because of what the E.U. is doing. It’s going to affect the U.S. as well, because we do an awful lot of trade with the E.U. It is in trading partners’ interests to follow the lead of a country that’s imposing a carbon border adjustment. Why pay the tax to them when you could’ve collected it yourself?
Our top priority is to show conservatives how the power of their free-market idea of accountability is the solution to climate change. We’re all about showing conservatives the strength of their own ideas, that this is a natural for them. Once we build that constituency on the right, then politicians on the right will be able to support smart, market-based policies like a price on carbon dioxide.
State constitutions will protect climate rights
Something that I’m hopeful for, change-wise, in 2022 is a bill I have in the Maine legislature called the Pine Tree Amendment, which is a constitutional amendment that would guarantee Mainers the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment.
It’s part of a national movement — there are many states that are adopting these types of constitutional amendments. I think they’re so important, because it’s how we ensure that climate policy is not subject to political whim when there’s a change in governorship, or when a state legislature switches control from one party to the other. I’m really excited about that kind of vision of climate policy that is really deep and sustainable and protects us in the long run.
Laws can be made and they can be unmade. They are not set in stone, and it’s actually much easier to unmake a law than it is to make a law. In the grand scheme of things, especially in swing states where we know that power can shift frequently, the only thing that remains stable and constant is the constitution. In Maine this year, we created a new constitutional right to food — just saying that you have the right to feed yourself, and that corporations can’t store seeds, and the government can’t interfere with your right to grow your own food. I think there’s a theme [emerging] of citizens being able to protect themselves and ensure that they have a stable future ahead of them.
Communities will demand a better disaster response
Obviously, we can expect that there will be disasters next year. I think it is safe to say that we will see an increase in attention to the need for changes to how we manage disasters — how we go about recovery, but also very much the need for hazard mitigation and climate adaptation more broadly.
We’re seeing more and more communities affected by climate-related disasters, and specifically communities that are grappling with repeat disasters or multiple disasters happening in this very short period of time.
The number of people who are personally experiencing these disasters and seeing the shortcomings of the emergency-management system is growing. Hopefully, what comes out of that is that people in those communities are able to share their stories, to do organizing, to start building this more well-defined movement for disaster justice. I would love to see a national politician, a member of Congress come out and say that emergency-management reform is something that they are going to take under their wing and start developing and advocating for.
Climate goals and trade goals will intersect
We’ve been doing research at the Council [on what we call] the U.S. carbon advantage. What we have found is that the U.S. economy on average is much cleaner than the vast majority of our trading partners.
It takes 80 percent more carbon emissions to create the same dollar value anywhere else in the world — in China, India, and Russia, we’re talking three to four times the amount of emissions to create the same kinds of goods. So our starting point is that the U.S. economy is very clean compared to our competitors. If we price those emissions, if we price the emissions associated with trade, we give a leg up to a U.S. industry that is clean. That’s a competitive advantage. And we decarbonize our supply chains — that’s a climate advantage.
We are going to see a proliferation of policies that connect climate goals with trade goals, because this relationship is absolutely necessary to support decarbonization. Addressing climate change is going to require a whole lot of policy efforts in a whole lot of places. We should never take our most effective tools off the table. So I want to manifest reinvigorated support for the most effective tools to fight climate change, which always come back to a price on carbon.
Reporting: Claire Elise Thompson and Camille Williams
Editing: Jaime Buerger and Chuck Squatriglia
Design: Mia Torres
Development: Michael Weslander