2018 Wasn’t a Completely Horrible Year for the Environment
By Jeff Turrentine
Was 2018 a tough year for the environment? Absolutely. But were there bright spots and victories among the attacks on biodiversity, climate and public health? Of course there were. Here are just a few, in case you're feeling blue about the state of our only planet.
The Ousters of Pruitt and Zinke
The first few weeks of 2018 saw Scott Pruitt, then administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, trying to deflect attention from several corruption scandals by publicly declaring his intention to halve the agency's workforce and slash its operating budget by 30 percent, all toward his stated goal of "protecting taxpayer dollars." Meanwhile, over at the Department of the Interior, then-Secretary Ryan Zinke was announcing his plan to get rid of 4,000 employees as a part of the largest reorganization in Interior's history—one that would accommodate President Trump's proposal, supported by Zinke, to cut the department's budget by $1.6 billion.
By that point in their now mercifully truncated careers, both men had made clear their willingness to abuse their substantial power in order to reward cronies and supporters from the fossil fuel industry. This article is too short to list all of their various crimes against the environment and public lands and health, but they include the rollback of air and water protections, the opening up of U.S. coastal waters to offshore drilling, the shrinkage and pillaging of our national monuments and the cynical rejection of climate science.
Their boss, President Trump, admired his two hires' dedication to destruction. But he came to hate the near-daily cavalcade of news stories detailing their shady dealings, which reinforced his administration's reputation as an incubator of graft. Pruitt's departure in July and Zinke's resignation last week were met with cheers by practically every American who's not currently employed in the oil, gas, or chemical industries—though their respective replacements, Andrew Wheeler and likely David Bernhardt, are every bit as dangerous (if not every bit as sleazy).
Keystone XL, Now on Ice
President Trump had been in office for only four days when, in one of his very first official acts, he signed an executive order advancing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that President Obama had blocked in 2015, signaling the brand-new administration's old-fashioned obeisance to the fossil fuel industry. His signature (accompanied by the comment that he hoped his reversal of Obama's decision would help "get that pipeline built") was meant to fast-track the construction of a 1,179-mile tube designed to carry 830,000 barrels a day of filthy, toxic tar-sands oil from Alberta to Nebraska.
If Trump's environmental policy was a race to the bottom, this act was the starting gun—alerting everyone (but especially oil and gas companies) that concerns about the climate and the environment were no longer germane to our national conversation about energy. Although Obama had managed to slow the pipeline's progress substantially, KXL seemed to be coming back from the dead ... until last month, when a federal judge in Montana temporarily blocked the construction of Keystone XL, ruling that Trump's State Department hadn't provided sufficient justification for its approval.
The judge, Brian Morris, furthermore criticized the administration for neglecting to factor in the risk of ruptures and spills, asserting that the State Department's analysis of the project's environmental impact "fell short of a 'hard look.'" While this latest delay isn't the death knell that many have been hoping for, every day that passes without "that pipeline built" adds to the sense of uncertainty about KXL's ultimate fate.
A Congress Going Green?
When the 116th Congress convenes in a few weeks, it will contain more women and people of color than ever before. It will also be, collectively, one of the youngest groups ever to be sworn in: 25 members of the new class are 40 years of age or younger, and the average age of new members is 10 years younger than the average age of the 115th Congress.
With youth and diversity comes a greater climate consciousness, and there is already much buzz around a Green New Deal. The 116th Congress just may be the one to usher in a paradigm-shifting economic and legislative package that creates thousands of new jobs in an expanded clean-energy sector designed to generate 100 percent of America's electricity from clean sources, and puts the country on a path to net-zero carbon pollution by 2050. Just a few years ago, such an endeavor was little more than a progressive pipe dream. Now it's got real momentum to match its real popularity among Americans of all political stripes. A recent poll of registered voters showed that 92 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of independents, and 64 percent of Republicans support a Green New Deal.
Numbers like that strongly suggest that we're beyond talking about whether some ambitious effort to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will pass; instead it's a matter of when. Politicians who were once afraid to talk about climate change on the floor of the House or the Senate—calling it a "divisive" issue—are soon going to be afraid of avoiding the topic.
Year of the Elephant
Last Dec. 31, 2017, China finally put an end to its legal, government-sanctioned ivory trade. That ban is already yielding results: According to a recent study, the number of people in China who say they intend to buy ivory has dropped by almost half this year, and 9 out of 10 Chinese citizens asked about the ban say that they support it. In a happy inversion of the laws of economics, demand seems to be falling even as supply dwindles.
Now, almost exactly a year later, the United Kingdom has announced an incoming ivory ban of its own, imposing stringent new rules on the trade that are being touted as some of the toughest in the world. That announcement follows news that the Dutch intend to ban all sales of raw ivory in their country beginning in March. A similar ban proposed by Singapore's government is currently undergoing public debate.
Much more needs to be done, of course, to put an end to the killing of elephants for ivory. There are still way too many loopholes that help elephant poachers and ivory traffickers stay in business, and too many countries that have yet to stop their domestic ivory trades. (We're looking at you, EU and Japan.) And under President Trump, the U.S.—which instituted a near-total ban on African ivory in 2016—recently relaxed its rules that forbade the importing of elephant trophy parts, a setback for our country and a horrible message to send to the rest of the world. But overall, the global momentum is shifting on this issue, and it's moving in the right direction.
The new year will be full of challenges, the biggest of which will be getting the nations of the world (including our own) to agree on a means of curbing carbon pollution and combating climate change. But the climate isn't all that's changing. The mood appears to be changing, too—and for the better.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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