10 Biggest Environmental News Stories of 2015
By Jason Mark
1. A Breakthrough Climate Deal in Paris
Failure was not an option. After the diplomatic meltdown that occurred during the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, all of the parties going into December's UN-sponsored climate negotiations in Paris—the wealthy countries, the poor countries, the island countries slipping into the sea, the activists—knew that some kind of deal was a must-have.
By the end of nearly two weeks of negotiations, the talks not only avoided outright failure, but exceeded expectations. The new global climate change agreement establishes a revised goal of keeping average global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees Celsius," sets up a clear mechanism for countries' greenhouse gas reductions to be revisited every five years and, for the first time, commits every nation-state on Earth—196 different entities—to do something to address this collective threat.
Big props are due to Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican chair of the UN Framework on Climate Change, who had the foresight to demand that all countries come to Paris with greenhouse gas reduction plans in hand. She's been doing the hard work for years so that the final negotiations in Paris weren't such a heavy lift.
High fives are also due to the French hosts, whose last-minute diplomatic brinksmanship helped clinch the deal. The U.S., the EU and dozens of smaller, poorer nations (the so-called “Ambition Coalition") demonstrated impressive leadership by insisting on a revised temperature rise target. And of course the constellation of civil society groups active in Paris—the environmental orgs, the development and aid groups, the religious figures, the artists, the business leaders—played a crucial role in putting on pressure from below.
But I don't want to sugar coat it. The agreement in many ways falls short of what we need to avoid catastrophic climate change. As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said on Democracy Now!: “If you want to point out what this agreement doesn't do, get in line."
So, yes, the agreement is insufficient. And it's essential. The Paris agreement marks a real turning point in history. The era of climate inaction is over; the era of climate action has begun. The hard work of getting to a 100 percent clean energy economy starts now.
2. Obama Denies Keystone XL Pipeline Permit
Four years ago, most of Washington, DC's “energy insiders" agreed that the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was a done deal. I'm embarrassed to say that, at the time, I agreed and wrote a callow editorial pointing out what seemed to me the strategic flaws in the Keystone campaign.
Though I eventually came around, I'll admit to being short-sighted and I'm thrilled that the optimists proved the haters wrong.
Several massive grassroots mobilizations and hundreds of smaller rallies later, the fight over Keystone XL had become the environmental movement's signature battle. In the end, greens won: In November, President Obama announced that he would not approve the pipeline.
The path to victory was in many ways as important as the victory itself. Throughout the Keystone XL campaign, green groups were more aggressive and visible than they had been in years. In August 2011, 350.org and allies staged the largest show of environmental civil disobedience since the height of the anti-nuclear movement, leading to more than a thousand arrests at the White House. In the fall of 2011, thousands of people encircled the White House. In 2013, greens organized the muscular Forward on Climate Rally and staged more White House arrests, including the Sierra Club's first foray into civil disobedience in its history. In 2014, the strange bedfellows of the Cowboys and Indian Alliance set up camp on the National Mall. Along the way, Keystone XL became a political football and (though my bosses hate to hear me say this) a political symbol: a clear choice between continuing on our carbonated kamikaze mission or making a sharp turn toward the clean energy future. The long-running Keystone XL fight revealed an American environmental movement no longer willing to play it safe and eager to buck the conventional wisdom.
Cynics still quibble that even as Keystone became a cause celebre, hundreds of other oil and gas pipelines were constructed. True. And, at the same time, many of those faced stiff local and regional and even national opposition. That's why the Keystone XL will victory will matter for years to come. Fossil fuel infrastructure projects are no longer inevitable; at the very least they won't go forward without a fight. Whether it's an oil refinery expansion, a proposed coal port, increased crude-by-rail shipments or coal leases on public lands, there will be no more done deals.
3. Laudato Si'
Since the turn of the century, a growing number of religious leaders have made bold statements linking environmental protection to their faiths. In 2002, Pope John Paul II and Bartholomew I, Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, issued a joint “declaration of environmental ethics." Here in the U.S., the Evangelical Environmental Network has been working steadily to affirm that, in its words, “creation care is a matter of Life." A group of imams have issued an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change.
But few faith-based statements on the environment have demonstrated the moral force—or sweeping vision—of Pope Francis' environmental encyclical, Laudato Si' (or, Praise Be to You). Released in June, Francis' 184-page message laid out a stinging condemnation of industrial society's reckless destruction of natural systems and articulated a radical ideal of our ethical responsibilities toward the rest of life on Earth.
Francis bemoans the destruction of our “common home" and pins the blame on “a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish." He mourns the steady extinction of species: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us." He makes a thinly veiled swipe at corporate capitalism: “The earth's resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production." And he makes a clear connection between environmental sustainability and global social justice: “Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true 'ecological debt' exists, particularly between the global north and south."
Predictably, some American conservatives (including some Catholics) dismissed Francis' lengthy homily. But the Pope's ideas seem to have slipped into the popular consciousness. Francis' impassioned message makes clear that the effort to protect our shared planet —and to ensure that all people have the same basic access to clean air, clean water and a livable environment—is among the greatest moral tests of our time.
4. Hottest Year on Record
This year, temperature records across the globe were knocked down like so many bowling pins, making 2015 the hottest in recorded history. September was a real scorcher. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it was the warmest September since the 1880s. The heat wave kept on into autumn. In November average temperatures across land and sea were 1.75 degrees above the twentieth century average. The temperature departure was the second highest in record-keeping. As for the highest temperature departure in recorded history? Well, that occurred just a month before, when October exceeded the twentieth century average by 1.79 degrees.
The effects were impossible to miss: A record drought in California that prompted sweeping water conservation efforts; a summer heat wave in Pakistan that killed at least 1,200 people; an especially strong El Niño phenomenon brewing in the Pacific.
Climatologists forecast that 2016 will be even hotter. Welcome to the new normal. If you're under 30 years old, you've never lived in a month in which planetary temperatures were cooler than the twentieth century average. Global warming is no longer some sort of “future threat"; it's a clear and present reality.
5. Under the Dome Goes Viral
No, I don't mean the television series based on the Stephen King book about the residents of a small town trapped inside a mysterious invisible wall. I'm talking about Chinese journalist Chai Jing's blockbuster film documentary about the horrific air pollution in China. Similar to Al Gore's An "Inconvenient Truth" in form and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in its simmering moral outrage, Under the Dome instantly became a viral phenomenon after it was released online in February. Within three days at least 150 million people in China viewed the hour-and-a-half documentary until, predictably, Chinese government officials tore it off the Internet.
The Chinese public's enthusiastic embrace of the film reveals that environmental concerns have become a real political force in China. An overwhelming majority of Chinese says water and air pollution are big problems. No wonder. Beijing, Shanghai and other major industrial centers in China are notorious for their foul air; in late November, schools in the capital were closed after air pollution levels soared to 35 times higher than safety levels. The country's ascendant middle class is making clear that the gray-and-hazy status quo is intolerable.
And the central government is responding. In March the government announced that in 2016 it will close the last of Beijing's coal-fired power plants. Nationwide, 2,000 smaller coal plants will also be shuttered. The government has also put in place new incentives for renewables and the country will install 5.3 gigawatts of solar capacity this year.
Spurred by popular sentiment, China is on the verge of going green.
6. President Obama Establishes New Monuments and Marine Sanctuaries
This year, President Obama bolstered his legacy as a conservationist when he used his power under the Antiquities Act to establish four new national monuments. In February he protected 20,000 acres on the Arkansas River. Then in July he established three new National Monuments. The Basin and Range Monument in Nevada is the biggest monument created by Obama to date—a 700,000-acre spread of mountains and valleys northeast of Las Vegas which also includes significant pre-Columbian artifacts. The Berryessa-Snow Mountain Monument in California is considered one of the most biologically diverse areas in the Golden State. Texas' new Waco Mammoth Monument contains unique deposits of mammoth remains. Together, the four new monuments preserve more than one million acres.
Then, in October, Obama announced the creation of the first new marine sanctuaries in 15 years. The new reserves protect an 875-square mile area of Wisconsin's Lake Michigan and a portion of the tidal waters of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. Since he came to office, Obama has established or expanded 19 national monuments, more than any of his predecessors.
The president's aggressive (and unapologetic) use of the Antiquities Act is, in part, a response to this do-nothing Congress. Traditionally, the creation of national parks, wildlife reserves and wilderness areas has been a bipartisan endeavor. But, as this fall's fight over the expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund revealed, the far right's hatred of the federal government has stalled efforts to protect public lands.
Next year will mark the centennial of National Park Service, which would seem a perfect occasion to establish some new parks. If Congress doesn't pass the parks and wilderness bills that have been introduced already, you can expect many more national monuments announcements from the White House in 2016.
7. Wolves Return to California
I know, I know, some sort of wolf story makes it on this list every year. That's because wolves are badass—and of course because the wolf is the classic emblem of wildness. The wolf's ability to reclaim some of its territory is as good an indicator as any of wild nature's resilience in the face of human pressures.
So it was thrilling when the California Fish and Wildlife Department announced in August that a wolf pack, dubbed the “Shasta Pack," had established a home in the rugged mountains in the northernmost part of the state. In 2011 and 2012, a dispersing male from Oregon (the Internet-famous OR-7) passed in and out of the state on a thousand-mile search for a mate. The new sightings mark the first time a wolf pack has made a home in California since 1924.
Wolf populations appear to be doing well across much of the West Coast, despite the threat of poaching. Wolf packs are gaining ground in Washington and in Oregon as well. In 2014 the California Fish and Wildlife Department extended endangered species protection to the gray wolf and in December issued a recovery plan—which means it's illegal to hunt, trap or harass a wolf. It looks like the California wolves are here to stay.
Let's hear it for good, old-fashioned gumshoe reporting. This fall, several news outlets (working independently) broke the news that oil giant ExxonMobil (a Private Enterprise Council Member of ALEC) (a Private Enterprise Council Member of ALEC) (a Private Enterprise Council Member of ALEC) had known as early as the 1970s that carbon dioxide emissions were fueling the greenhouse effect—and yet the company continued to wage a political and media campaign to cloud the public's understanding of climate science.
First, the Pulitzer Prize-winning news site Inside Climate News reported that in 1977 an Exxon scientist reported to senior management that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels." Then the Los Angeles Times revealed that even as the Exxon board was publicly dismissing climate science as “very unclear," company researchers were examining whether global warming would facilitate oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean.
In a way, this is like a dog-bites-man story. After all, we've known since at least the late 1990s—when Ross Gelbspan wrote The Heat Is On—that the oil majors attempted to sow confusion about climate science. What makes the new reporting so important is that it reveals Exxon was covering up the research of its own scientists. This is the proverbial smoking gun—in the form of internal briefing papers.
ExxonMobil (a Private Enterprise Council Member of ALEC) (a Private Enterprise Council Member of ALEC) (a Private Enterprise Council Member of ALEC) has attempted to fight back by impugning the credibility of the reporting teams. But the counteroffensive appears to have fallen flat and, if anything, has only fueled the controversy. The new revelations have spawned their own hasthtag, #ExxonKnew.
The reporting from Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times has prompted many people to make comparisons between Big Oil and Big Tobacco, which was famously brought down by a similar scientific cover-up. The New York Attorney General has launched a sweeping probe of the company's actions and Democratic members of Congress are calling for the Justice Department to investigate. It seems only a matter of time before Exxon executives will have to appear before Congress or in a courtroom and testify about what the company knew about climate change and when the company knew it.
9. China Bans Ivory Imports
First, the bad news: This year the elephant poaching crisis in Africa continued to grind on as thousands of animals lost their lives to the global ivory trade. In June, a government minister in Tanzania declared that elephant poaching in his country had become a national disaster.
Now, the good news: The government in China, which is by far the biggest market for illegal ivory, is taking strong measures to close its borders to elephant tusks. In September, Chinese President Xi Jingping and President Obama said their nations would work more closely together to close the ivory trade. Then, a month later, the Chinese forestry ministry announced a one-year suspension of ivory trophy imports.
The Chinese government's new hardline against ivory won't completely shut down the trade, not given the sophisticated black market that's in place. But the official stance (China also destroyed more than 6 tons of seized ivory in 2015) could erode the social license that exists within Chinese society for possessing ivory carvings. The fate of the African elephant rests with the Chinese people.
10. Canadians Overthrow the Petro-State
Imagine that (in a bizarro universe in which the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was a little different) George W. Bush had been able to serve two and a half terms—a full decade in office. Well, something like actually happened in Canada.
During his 10 years as Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper routinely pissed off environmentalists and progressives. He was an aggressive booster for the Alberta tar sands, retreated from the country's greenhouse gas reduction commitments, eviscerated the Environment Ministry and muzzled scientists and ratcheted up government surveillance of activists. In November, he was booted out of office.
The new prime minister, Justin Trudeau (son of the 70s-era Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau), has already shown that the petro state to the north is headed in a new direction. He banned oil tankers off of the north coast of British Columbia, effectively killing the proposed Northern Gateway tar sand pipeline. He renamed the Environment Ministry the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. And his government played a cooperative role in the Paris climate talks (although Canadian First Nations are upset at the government's hardline stand against including any indigenous rights language in the new accord).
An even more stunning Canadian political development this year was the May election in Alberta, during which the New Democratic Party took control of the province. Premier Rachel Notley has announced an economy-wide carbon tax that will go into effect in 2016, while promising a phase out of coal-fired power by 2030. Keep in mind that this is happening in Alberta, which is like the Texas of the North.
The NDP victory in Alberta is evidence that, when it comes to the politics of energy and the environment, anything is possible. Here's to an equally surprising 2016.
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