The Biggest Environmental Wins and Losses of the 2020 Election
By Tara Lohan
Election Day 2020 — the day before the United States officially left the Paris climate agreement — didn't deliver an immediate rebuke to President Trump or relief for environmentalists.
That would have to wait.
"The election hasn't produced the outcome that the planet badly needed," Bill McKibben of 350.org summed up in The New Yorker the following day.
But as the votes continued to be counted in battleground states, the mood shifted from despair to hope, and finally, on Nov. 7, to celebration when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were pronounced victors.
So much was riding on this election — and not just in the United States.
"There is no pathway to meaningful global climate action without our federal government playing a prominent part," wrote Mary Annaïse Heglar in The New Republic just before the election.
A Biden-Harris victory doesn't undo all the environmental harm caused by the Trump administration and its 125 rollbacks of environmental protections, but it provides a much-needed opportunity to restore scientific integrity and take action on climate change, environmental justice, biodiversity and other pressing concerns.
That's good news. And looking down the ballot there were also other environmental victories — as well as some places where ground was lost. Here are the biggest takeaways:
The Good Stuff
Few big-ticket wins were clear early except for the fact that Democrats held onto the House of Representatives — an expected but not inconsequential victory. And although their majority slimmed, several new additions will be a boon for environmental issues.
One of those is progressive Cori Bush, who cruised to victory in Missouri's 1st congressional district. She's the first Black woman from the state to be elected to Congress. The nurse, pastor and Black Lives Matter activist is also a Green New Deal supporter.
In gubernatorial fights, Washington's climate champion Jay Inslee won re-election. So did Democrat Roy Cooper in North Carolina, which E&E News called a significant victory in the state's push for clean energy.
Mark Kelly flipped a Senate seat blue in Arizona, and so did John Hickenlooper in Colorado.
Hickenlooper, a booster of the fracking industry during his time as Colorado governor, is not exactly beloved by environmentalists in the state. But his defeat of Cory Gardner was hailed by the League of Conservation Voters, which called Gardner one of "worst anti-environmental candidates" running this year. It was also the first time in 84 years that Democrats swept all statewide races in Colorado.
Along with those victories came one for wolves, too. Colorado voters passed Proposition 114, which will require the state Parks and Wildlife department to develop a restoration and management plan for the reintroduction of gray wolves. It comes less than a week after the Trump administration removed federal protection from gray wolves across the country.
Photo by Steve Felberg/Pixabay (CC)
In other statewide races, Nevada's Question 6, which would require electric utilities to get 50% of their electricity from renewables by 2030, was approved by voters. But how much that helps the state's clean energy future is a matter of debate. Nevada has already passed similar legislation. Enshrining this benchmark into the state constitution could help protect it from future rollbacks — or it could make efforts to raise the target even harder.
Much further down the ballot, climate champions made gains in city council positions in major cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco and Portland.
Denver also approved an increase in sales tax to help fund climate and clean energy initiatives. And Columbus, Ohio passed a measure that would help the city secure more locally sourced renewable energy.
"City leadership is important for advancing climate action but new research finds U.S. cities falling behind," Daniel Melling, communications manager for the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, wrote for Legal Planet.
The Bad Stuff
An anticipated, decisive retaking of the Senate by Democrats never materialized, and whether it remains in Republican hands won't be decided for a bit. Two Georgia races are headed to a January runoff.
If Republicans do hang on to the Senate, that will mean any bold new climate legislation — or likely any meaningful environmental legislation at all — coming out of the House will be stymied, especially if Mitch McConnell retains his role as Senate leader.
Meanwhile several Republican senators with dismal environmental records will be back, including Iowa's Joni Ernst, Mississippi's Cindy Hyde-Smith, Alabama's Tommy Tuberville and Roger Marshall from Kansas. Lindsay Graham, who has a mixed at best record when it comes to climate legislation, also returns.
While Colorado may have seen a blue wave, Montana was awash in red. A Republican sweep across the state included a victory by coal-industry ally Greg Gianforte, who took the governor's mansion out of control of Democrats for the first time in 16 years.
Coal train loading at Spring Creek mine, Montana. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
"Montana didn't just go Republican on Tuesday," wrote Gwen Florio in The Nation. "It went deeply conservative Republican." The effect of that will be felt not just on energy policy, but the fate of public lands and wildlife, including sage grouse and grizzlies.
In a new low, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia became the first QAnon conspiracy theory believer elected to Congress. In addition to a record of racist statements, she ran on a platform that included blocking the Green New Deal.
Democrats had hoped to make a small gain in Texas. But even $2.5 million in backing from Michael Bloomberg couldn't get Democrat Chrysta Castañeda elected to the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees issues related to oil and gas — a state race that has worldwide impact.
The race was won by Jim Wright, whom the Huffington Post describes as "a hardcore climate change denier and owner of an oil-field services company."
The oil industry may have also garnered a victory in Alaska. There Measure 1, which would raise taxes on some North Slope oil companies, is trailing by a wide margin.
But when you tally it all up at the end of the day — or week, really — even McKibben had to concede that overall things are looking up.
"It could have gone much better," he wrote on Nov. 7. "(Specifically, a deadlocked Senate will make action on the dominant issue of our lifetimes, climate change, more difficult to address than it should be.) But it went."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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