This year certainly had its big eco-news events. From natural disasters that led to one of the worst nuclear meltdowns on record to an unprecedented assault on environmental protections and regulations in Congress, 2011 felt like we took 10 steps backward on the protection of human health and the environment. Personally, I'm still reeling from 2010 events, including the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Supreme Court decision giving a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in politics, but we need to keep pressing forward and educate more people on the issues impacting the environment and solutions that can help solve the most daunting problems. We need to encourage individuals to become engaged in their community, adopt sustainable practices and support strong environmental policy.
Here's my top five list of eco-events of 2011. Though the list tells some of the story, I need your help to finish it. Help me complete this list by commenting below on what you think are the biggest eco-events of 2011. I'm sure together we can cover them all.
1. Fukushima Meltdown
The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Northern Japan and caused a loss of cooling and the meltdowns of three nuclear reactors on March 11 tops the list of most tragic events of 2011. Beyond the 20,000 fatalities, the event led to the worst nuclear crisis in 25 years since Chernobyl in 1986.
The reactor meltdowns in Fukushima forced 160,000 people to flee radiation and the subsequent damage to fishing, farming and forestry businesses. The Fukushima disaster received the highest possible rating of seven on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. Japanese officials estimated it may be more than 20 years before residents can safely return to the area. Studies confirm substantial releases of long-lived radioactive materials such as cesium-137, a known carcinogen, into the atmosphere and Pacific Ocean. The long-term ecological and social impacts remain unclear.
Political responses to Fukushima are changing the future of nuclear power globally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once a proponent of nuclear power, announced a phase-out of her nation’s 17 nuclear plants by 2022. No other nation has gone so far.
President Obama requested safety reviews for existing nuclear facilities but made clear that nuclear power remains in play. Most European Union countries are also focusing on safety reviews and researching new technology. Chinese officials promise rigorous safety standards but still intend to add 40 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2020, enough to power 40 Vermonts.
Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on Fukushima:
2. Hydraulic Fracturing or 'Fracking'
The largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the U.S. The Halliburton-developed drilling technology of "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a "Saudia Arabia of natural gas" beneath many cities and towns across the nation. Thanks to the 2010 release of Josh Fox's documentary GASLAND, its hard to find anyone who isn't aware of this issue.
From the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's draft analysis in December indicating an association between groundwater contamination in a Wyoming aquifer and gas production practices—including hydraulic fracturing—to thousands of people who spoke out against fracking in the Delaware River Basin, leading to a postponement of fracking in that watershed, it's clear that the controversy over the safety of this extraction method will continue for years.
Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on fracking:
3. Keystone XL Pipeline
TransCanada's proposed 1,700-mile long pipeline would transport highly corrosive crude oil from Canada's oil sands region in Alberta to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, before being exported to China, Latin America or Europe.
Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on the Keystone XL pipeline:
4. International Energy Agency's Warning
Without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system, warned the International Energy Agency (IEA) in the 2011 edition of the World Energy Outlook (WEO). The agency’s flagship publication, released Nov. 9 in London, said there is still time to act, but the window of opportunity is closing.
“Growth, prosperity and rising population will inevitably push up energy needs over the coming decades. But we cannot continue to rely on insecure and environmentally unsustainable uses of energy,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “Governments need to introduce stronger measures to drive investment in efficient and low-carbon technologies. The Fukushima nuclear accident, the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa and a sharp rebound in energy demand in 2010 which pushed CO2 emissions to a record high, highlight the urgency and the scale of the challenge.”
With the dismal outcome of the Durban climate talks and lack of energy policies in many countries, including the U.S., it seems the warning from the IEA is not being taken seriously. One example the world should be following is Australia, which passed a new clean energy law in November after more than a decade of effort by countless Australians who have worked tirelessly for action on climate change. The wide ranging plan, entitled Securing a Clean Energy Future, will take effect July 2012.
Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on the IEA report:
5. Ocean Acidification
“The increasing amounts of carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere every day are changing our oceans, steadily increasing their acidity, and dramatically affecting marine life,” says Prof. Dan Laffoley, marine vice chair of International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas and chair of RUG. “This may also have severe impacts on human life in the future. Only by reducing our CO2 emissions and enhancing the protection of oceans to strengthen their ability to recover, can we effectively address this issue.”Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on ocean acidification:
There's my list of the top five eco-events of 2011. What are yours? Please share them in the comments below.
Happy new year.
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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>
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