10 Most Important Environmental Stories of 2016

10 Most Important Environmental Stories of 2016

3. Fires and Floods

Mike Daniels

We did it again! According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2016 will be the hottest year in history, breaking the record set in … well, set just a year ago. Meteorologists project that average global temperatures in 2016 will be 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Though it's difficult to peg any single freak weather occurrence to global warming (obligatory environmental journalist caveat), it's not hard to spot signs that things are amiss. A couple of big phenomena grabbed headlines.

First, in May a wildfire of unprecedented size and ferocity swept through the boreal forests around Fort McMurray, Alberta. The fires—which burned some 1.5 million acres, destroyed 2,400 buildings and forced the evacuation of nearly the entire community—were fueled by freakishly dry and warm weather. While fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems, the fires grew out of control due to record high temperatures—as high as 91 degrees F, in May, in far northern Alberta. At least we can say this for Mother Nature: she has a sense of irony. Ft. McMurray, you may recall, is the boomtown at the center of the tar sands industry.

After the fires came floods. In August, extreme rains brought Biblical-scale flooding to southern Louisiana. In Livingston Parish, 31 inches of rain fell in just 15 hours. The floods drove tens of thousands from their homes, caused some $30 million in damage, and contributed to the deaths of at least 13 people. The Red Cross said it was the worst natural disaster to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Speaking of disaster, I'd be remiss not to include this other downer: In April, oceanographers reported that, due to an influx of warmer and more acidic seawater, 93 percent of Australia's Great Barrier Reef is suffering from coral bleaching. While it may be too early to write the reef's obituary, there's no doubt that the ecosystem is in dire straits. Here's how researcher Terry Hughes, writing on Twitter, described reaction to his findings: "I showed the results of aerial surveys of #bleaching on the #GreatBarrierReef to my students. And then we wept."

4. Kigali + Paris = Progress On Climate

Epitavi / iStock

But not all hope is lost. Even as climate change becomes more evident, global leaders continue to take steps to address the crisis. Two important climate mitigation developments happened this year.

The first one was something of a sleeper story. In October, negotiators from 170 countries meeting in Kigali, Rwanda agreed to a binding agreement to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. What's an HFC?, you might be asking (especially since the agreement got little media attention). Basically, HFCs are the primary component of air conditioning. While AC is a great thing to have while the planet gets hotter, HFCS are, unfortunately, a powerful heat-trapping gas—about 1,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So this is a big deal, one that will, as it goes into effect, avoid the equivalent of 70 billion tons of CO2. Also—and this is crucial—unlike the Paris agreement, the Kigali deal is legally binding.

And what about the Paris agreement? On Nov. 3 it officially went into effect. To be sure, the great weakness of the (otherwise landmark) Paris agreement is that its greenhouse gas reduction targets are voluntary. Nevertheless, the major signatories say they are committed to fulfilling their obligations—and they reaffirmed those commitments at a November UN meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco even as news of the Trump victory sunk in. "It is global society's will that all want to cooperate to combat climate change," a senior Chinese negotiator said in Marrakesh, adding that "any movement by the new U.S. government" won't distract China from its move toward a renewable energy economy.

Perhaps the most important post-U.S. election climate change news has been the firm statements by major emitters like China and India that they plan to continue their transition toward a clean energy economy. The transition appears inexorable due to the falling price of renewables, a fact that offers an important lesson to Donald Trump, should he care to heed it: The clearest path for reviving American manufacturing lies in making investments in clean energy; a failure to make those investments will leave the U.S. scrambling to catch up.

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