2017 was an exceptional year for ordinary citizens who stepped up to come to their communities' needs and in the process, sent a clear message that anyone can make a difference. As we turn the calendar to 2018, we look to this list as inspiration for others to act as boldly.
1. The California Heroes
Wildfires have been blazing through the west since late summer and the natural landscape has been burnt to the ground in the process, causing families and animals to flee. Hundreds of volunteer firefighters have stepped up to fight the blaze and ordinary civilians have risked their lives to save family heirlooms, displaced pets and wild animals. These heroic acts prove that there is one thing the fires haven't taken and that is the human spirit.
2. The New Mexico Tribes Who Said No to Fracking
Several Native American tribes in New Mexico voiced their concerns about an ordinance to regulate oil and gas fracking on their sacred lands in November. They filled public meeting halls, calling for better protections for the land, air and water with the support of many community members who raised their fists in solidarity. Ahjani Yepa of Jemez Pueblo, one of the many brave tribe members who spoke out, said, "The land is our Bible. Once it is gone, you cannot print another copy."
3. The Concerned Citizens Who Blocked Approval of an Oil Train in California
An oil train moves through California's Central Valley. In 2009, 10,000 tank cars transported crude oil in the entire U.S. This one terminal alone proposed bringing in 73,000 cars a year. Elizabeth Forsyth / Earthjustice
In November a group of citizens, with the help of Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club, was successful in their lawsuit filed to Kern County, stating that the risk of a massive refinery and rail project in their community was not fully assessed. The project would have allowed imports of up to 63.1 million barrels of crude oil per year. The win was a huge success for the community and the environment.
4. The Peruvian Farmer Who Took a German Energy Giant to Court
Saul Luciano LliuyaPascale Sury
Saul Luciano Lliuya, a farmer in Peru, filed a lawsuit against German energy giant RWE that claims they have endangered his hometown of Huaraz by melting glaciers and swelling a mountain lake that threatens to flood the region. The suit calls for $20,000 towards the $4 million cost of building flood protections for Huaraz.
5. The Pangolin Men
The pangolin is the only scaled mammal in the world, it also the most trafficked. But, there a group of men in Zimbabwe who call themselves the "Pangolin Men" because they have devoted their lives to protecting the species. The men work at Tikki Hywood Trust, where they rehabilitate the animals so that they can go back into the wild.
6. The Man Teaching Ex-Coal Miners to Be Bee Keepers
Appalachians learn beekeeping skillsJohn Farrell
Mark Lilly, a retired insurance adjuster, has found a way to strengthen his rural West Virginia community through his favorite hobby, beekeeping. By teaching former coal miners in his town how to keep bees, he is giving them a new sense of purpose and some are even able to make a decent income at it. The bees are also helping the natural environment, which was been ravished by the coal industry. "We spent a lot of years scarring the land," Lilly said. "Now we will begin trying to heal some of those scars."
7. The Farmers Transforming Mountaintop Coal Mines
Crew members Eva Jones and Chris Farley, residents of Mingo County, work the soil. It is compacted, composed of blasted rock, and lacks organic matter. Paul Corbit Brown / YES! Magazine
As part of the Refresh Appalachia initiative, former coal miners and others who have been put out of work in West Virginia are turning mountaintop removal sites into hope. Through farming and forestry, the Refresh crews are revitalizing the hillsides to be profitable and sustainable for the local communities that surround them. The crew members also receive training in sustainability careers such as solar installation, making it win-win all around for the economically depressed region.
8. The 98-Year-Old Man Who Donated His Walgreens Investment to Build a Wildlife Refuge
Russ Gremel / Facebook / Chicago Tribune
Chicago-Native Russ Gremel found himself with quite a bit of money after investing $1,000 into Walgreens nearly 70 years ago. Gremel decided to donate the $2 million he had accrued to the National Audubon Society, who bought a 400-acre plot of land from Augustana College to turn it into a wildlife refuge that can be used for education and enjoyment for many years to come.
9. The Man Who Led a Volunteer Group to Clean up the Beach
When Afroz Shah, a 33-year-old lawyer, in Mumbai, India saw Versova Beach for the first time, he was shocked. The beaches were completely covered in rotting trash, with some patches getting up to 5.5 feet high. Recognizing the extreme risk to the health and safety of his community, Shah began cleaning. Slowly but surely, he built a volunteer group of 1,000 people to clean the beach. Almost two years later, Shah and his group, the Versova Resident Volunteers, cleaned up 11,684,500 pounds of trash, most of it plastic, that had accumulated along the shoreline. Shah won a "Champion of the Earth" award from the UN for his efforts.
10. The Kids Who Filed a Climate Lawsuit Against the U.S. Government
© Robin Loznak Photography, LLC
In an historic effort, a group of 21 young adults and children are challenging the U.S. government's approach on climate change. In November 2016, the group's lawsuit, supported by Our Children's Trust, was approved by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken. In June, the Trump administration filed for an appeal of Aiken's order in the Juliana v. United States case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but it was denied. And the young group got a trial date for Feb. 5, 2018. "I'm excited that we have a date now," said Jayden Foytlin, 14, of Rayne, Louisiana. "I think we are all looking forward to our day in court. I feel like we are that much closer to justice."
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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
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