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10 Most Important Environmental Stories of 2016

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By Jason Mark

Christmas has come and gone, New Year's is right around the corner. That must mean it's time for my annual roundup of the most important environmental stories of the past year.


Some of these topics got a ton of attention (cue: Donald Trump, Standing Rock) while others didn't get half as much as they deserved (think the Kigali HFC deal and a proposed delisting of the Yellowstone grizzlies). No matter how much ink and airtime they earned, all of these stories revealed some larger trend about the state of the environment and environmental advocacy.

Without further ado, here's my list of the big, the bad and the good from 2016.

1. Climate Science Denier-In-Chief

Fleetingphoto / iStock

Donald Trump's stunning Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton was the biggest story of 2016, period. American progressives were gutted by the upset and have spent much of the time since figuring out how to resist the Trump-Pence administration.

Many people reasonably fear that a Trump White House will threaten women's reproductive rights, basic civil liberties, undocumented immigrants, the rule of law and any hope of political discourse (and policy-making) rooted in, well, facts. Trump also poses a clear and present danger to our shared environment—especially the maintenance of a (more-or-less) stable climate.

Make no mistake: A Hillary Clinton presidency wouldn't have been all rose petals and kumbaya for the environmental movement. At the very least, though, Clinton would have continued President Obama's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now, we're facing a climate science Denier-in-Chief, as Trump will hold the distinction of being the only head of state not to accept the basic science of human-driven global warming.

Since the election, he has flirted with environmental luminaries like Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio, but his cabinet picks make plain he's determined to stall, if not reverse, the U.S.' recent progress on climate change. Scott Pruitt—a long-time oil and gas industry bagman, and fellow climate change denier—has been chosen to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The CEO of ExxonMobil has been nominated for Secretary of State. The Clean Power Plan will face attacks from within the federal government beginning on Day One of Trump's presidency. In the face of the coming onslaught, environmental leaders say they are ready to fight like hell to preserve clean air, clean water, a stable climate, and the integrity of public lands and wildlife protections. Expect four long, tough years of political battles to maintain a healthy environment.

2. The Standoff at Standing Rock

Brian Nevins

When LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a member of North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux nation, set up an encampment near the Missouri River in April to draw attention to a planned petroleum conduit, hardly anyone had heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline. By September, the resistance camp of "water protectors" had grown to include thousands of people, and the standoff between indigenous and environmental activists and Energy Transfer Partners and North Dakota law enforcement had catapulted into the national headlines.

Scenes from the weeks of rolling conflicts—women set upon by attack dogs, people arrested in the midst of prayer, sound cannons targeted at marchers and their horses, heavy equipment lit on fire—galvanized public sympathy for the Native-led resistance. Solidarity caravans and resupply convoys poured into the water protectors' camps throughout the fall. Then the water protectors' (provisional) victories sparked new hope for the power of grassroots activism.

In early September, the Obama administration halted pipeline construction at the Missouri River, and in a sweeping statement said the controversy should prompt "a serious discussion on whether there should be a nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects." On Dec. 4, Obama called on the Army Corps of Engineers to look for a different pipeline route.

The battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline is huge for two reasons.

First, it made visible the strength and sophistication of a resurgent Native sovereignty movement. This movement has been building for years. As I wrote in an article for The American Prospect, "From the Coast Salish nations of the Pacific Northwest, to the Ojibwe lands around the Great Lakes, to the Iroquois territory of New York, a new fighting spirit is sweeping across Indian Country." The mediagenic images from the banks of the Missouri River put that spirit front and center of (non-Native) Americans' attention. Environmental organizations have long sought to create alliances with indigenous peoples, with whom they share a similar worldview about how humanity should treat the planet's lands and waters. The fight against Keystone XL was a good example. Now environmental groups are taking leadership from Native Americans. And just in time. When it comes to disputes over resource extraction and environmental protection, Native Americans' moral authority can supply a countervailing force to the ethic of greed and corruption that will likely emanate from a gilded Oval Office.

Second, the #NoDAPL movement offers a template for resistance in the Age of Trump. We know what to expect from a new resource rush: attempts to put in place more fracking wells, more pipelines, more oil trains, more gas terminals, more clear-cutting, more mining. And with the Standing Rock experience fresh in our minds, we also know how to oppose that resource rush: with blockades, marches, petitions and prayer in the face of violence. The water protectors showed the power and force of putting bodies on the line to keep oil and gas and coal in the ground.

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