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The Year the Climate Changed Everything

That 2014 is turning out to be the hottest year ever recorded is, sadly, not particularly remarkable. What we started doing about it is.

That 2014 is turning out to be the hottest year ever recorded is, sadly, not particularly remarkable. Nor was it really notable that, despite the global swelter, most of humanity was content to pump out a record-breaking volume—35 billion tons—of additional heat-trapping carbon pollution.

It wasn't remarkable that the world's climate scientists issued a series of reports bearing the international climatology community's strongest warnings yet. (It is "extremely likely" that human influence is the "dominant cause" of today's warming, which is scientist for "wake up.")

Or that California experienced the worst drought in at least 1,200 years.

Or that a massive ice sheet in Antarctica thawed and collapsed, all but guaranteeing 10 feet of global sea level rise from it alone. It may take a long time—hundreds of years, even—but it's locked in.

Or that the Pentagon is officially preparing plans for waging wars in a warming world.

Or that vast plumes of methane, a super-heat-trapping gas, are bubbling up in the Arctic at a rate not seen before.

Or that conservative politicians, pundits, and voters ignored it all, continuing their tradition of brushing off climate change as a liberal contrivance, and of convening hearings to haughtily disavow one of the most robust scientific consensuses ever established.

None of those deeply unnerving developments were particularly surprising in 2014—they all simply reflect the new machinations of the world we now inhabit. We live in the age of perpetual, incremental environmental decline. It may have been a few years since we've seen a new hottest-ever year record—the last one was in 2010—but they're becoming common enough to qualify as routine (previous record-breakers include 2005, 1998, and 1997). The extreme weather; the droughts, the heat, the floods; they're downright pedestrian.

Yes, our blue marble greenhouse is a little bit steamier this year than it was the last, reports assessing its health and stability a bit gloomier, the necessity of human cooperation a bit more fiercely urgent. But the same was true of the year before, and the year before that. The slow rise of the mercury and grim tidings of our science are an unremarkable feature of modern life.

While global warming continued to engender hotter temps, more extreme weather, and its familiar host of other sadly ordinary symptoms, there was actually one remarkable thing about the climate story of 2014, and that is the way that some humans began organizing effectively to turn the tide.

The Obama administration unveiled its long-coming "Clean Power Plan," which harnesses the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the carbon emissions of fossil fuel-burning plants. If the plan works as expected, it will reduce the CO2 emissions of power plants 30 percent by 2030.

In August, the largest-ever climate march took over the streets of New York City, where 300,000 people gathered to sound a call for action. The event made international headlines, and became a powerful signal that the public was fed up with the status quo.

That much was clear, months later, when surprise news broke that China and the US had inked a deal agreeing, after years of stalemate, on carbon cuts—a historic move, considering the world's two biggest polluters had long been the key obstructors to an international climate treaty. Weeks later, rumors spread that India (the world's third-largest emitter) and the US were close to a similar deal.

Finally, just this month, 180 nations did what they had never done before: Gathered in Lima for the 19th annual climate meeting of its kind, delegates from each agreed to a tentative regime of carbon reduction. All of them. Sure, the plan that emerged is non-binding, has been criticized as being toothless, and is more of a blueprint than anything. But that's okay.

Because next year at Paris COP20 is the world's big chance at a legit climate deal. Even if that fails, which is entirely plausible, 2014 at least made it clear that there is a groundswell of public support for fighting climate change. Besides the triumphant People's March, the divestment movement is barrelling along, collecting victories from reputable institutions and proving a thorn in the fossil fuel industry's side.

The idea that climate change is a hoax was labeled the lie of the year by the venerable fact-checking organization PolitiFact. People are fed up with climate denial, to the point that Republicans had to resort to the pathetic "I'm not a scientist" dodge on the campaign trail, in order to justify their climate-ignorant policy preferences. Of course, those Republicans are coming into power in 2015, and they will remain as opposed to climate action as ever. Obstruction will continue.

But at least a wind of change is blowing; even if the gusts hitting our faces will be hotter than ever.