As we look back on the most noteworthy environmental stories of 2017, one cannot help but start with the extreme weather that has caused so much destruction to so many around the globe. And with that, the year brought heightened concern for protecting our planet with focused attention on issues like renewable energy, electric vehicles and plastic pollution. And while 2017 was also marked by challenges with the U.S. pulling out of the Paris agreement and making other questionable environmental policy changes, we all enter a new year with the ability to make positive change.
1. Extreme Weather on the Rise
The 2017 hurricane season was one of the most catastrophic in decades. In August, Hurricane Harvey caused major damage in Houston, Texas. Then Hurricane Irma followed as the most powerful Caribbean storm on record. And on Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria swept over Puerto Rico, killing 64 people, destroying the power grid to such an extent that half the island is still without power, and causing billions of dollars in damage. In addition to the hurricane season, wildfires stretched across the west with the Jones and Whitewater fires in Oregon, the Pyette Wilderness fires in Idaho, and the Reef fire in Montana. Several more fires continued to blaze through the end of the year, with the most notable being the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in California in history, which began burning in early December and will likely continue into 2018. Earthquakes also shook the world in unprecedented numbers. A 6.7 magnitude earthquake in the Philippines in February displaced more than 3,000 families. And in December, a 6.5 magnitude quake in Cipatujah, Indonesia could be felt from 190 miles away. The U.S. also experienced several small earthquakes, including eight quakes in August in Oklahoma and a few more recently in Santa Clara County and San Jose, California.
2. The U.S. Withdraws From the Paris Agreement
On June 1, President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, spurring backlash from nation leaders worldwide. Emmanuel Macron, President of France, started a campaign called "Make Earth Great Again," and announced that he would be giving away $70 million in multi-year grants to climate scientists who want to continue their research in France. The U.S. now stands as the only country in the UN that does not support the agreement.
3. Continuing Rise of Renewables
Despite the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, many cities and States made huge progress in 2017. Oregon and Washington joined a global alliance in November, promising to phase out coal by 2030. In May, Madison, Wisconsin committed to 100% renewable energy and net-zero carbon emissions and Abita Springs, Louisiana voted to go all renewables by 2030.
4. New U.S. Leadership Steps up to Fill the Void
The U.S. also had major corporations and private and public leaders step up to the challenge in the wake of President Trump's withdrawal. At COP23 in Germany, 20 companies promised to phase out coal including BT, Engie, Kering, Diageo, Marks & Spencer, Orsted and Storebrand. In October, New York City's former Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $64 million to shut down coal plants in the U.S. And in June, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a nonbinding agreement with China to cooperate on renewable energy technology, including zero-emissions vehicles and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
5. China Takes Huge Steps in Renewables
In possibly the most unexpected scenario, China, which topped the charts with nearly double the carbon emissions of the U.S., made drastic changes to their consumption. In January, the country announced a $361 Billion Renewable Energy Investment by 2020 and started work right away. They installed 35GW in just seven months—more than twice as much as installed by any other country in all of 2016—increasing their solar PV capacity to 112GW total. They've also temporarily shut down thousands of factories to cut down on the deadly air pollution and the city of Shenzen has almost completely electrified their bus fleet. China's new perspective on climate action has already changed the lives of the more than 1.3 billion of its people and will no doubt be making the planet healthier for all of us in the future.
6. Pruitt Undermines the EPA
On Feb. 17, Scott Pruitt was sworn in as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) administrator. Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, sued the EPA more than a dozen times before taking leadership of the agency. Pruitt has made an effort to dismantle the EPA by dismissing several scientists from its Board of Scientific Counselors, supporting the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, and lifting federal regulations on the oil and gas industry. Then, after a six month review, on Oct. 9 Pruitt signed a measure to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from electric power generated by coal-burning power plants by 32 percent by 2030, relative to 2005 levels.
7. Zinke Shrinks National Monuments
While Pruitt undermines the EPA, Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke has reduced precious regulations on U.S. protected lands. With Zinke's support, on Dec. 4, Trump announced huge reductions to two national monuments in Utah—the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante—rolling back two million acres of federally protected land and potentially opening it up to oil drilling and logging. Zinke also urged unspecified reductions in Nevada's Gold Butte National Monument and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which straddles the California-Oregon border. The report also urges the president to consider changing the boundaries of two marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean: Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll. And in December, Zinke auctioned off 700,000 acres of public lands for fracking.
8. President Trump Signs Executive Order on DAPL and Keystone XL
On Jan. 24, President Trump signed an executive order to move the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines forward. Just one day later, on Jan. 25, a diesel pipeline in Northern Iowa spilled 138,600 gallons from a leaked system. It was also reported on Jan. 23, that 52,830 gallons of crude oil spilled onto an aboriginal land in Saskatchewan, Canada.
9. Oceans Littered With Plastic
A number of studies were released in 2017 that opened the lid on plastic pollution in the world's oceans. In June, it was reported that microplastic particles have infiltrated the pristine Antarctic, and the levels are five times higher than previously estimated. In November, it was found that deep sea creatures who live seven miles below the surface were consuming plastics. And there were several instances were whales, birds and other marine life were found dead with stomachs full of plastic. Fortunately, there were many who stepped up to start cleaning beaches and find innovative ways to clean the sea.
10. Electric Vehicles Change the Game
Electric vehicle sales surged 63 percent in 2017, with China topping the market. Several car brands also announced their own inexpensive electric models including Volvo and Volkswagen, making them more affordable and accessible than ever. In addition to the surge, Tesla installed huge supercharger stations in California, making it ever more possible to get from point A to point B without fear of the batteries running out.