Sign in with Facebook
  • Facebook Page: 128172154133
  • Twitter: EarthProtect1

Posted by on in General Environment
  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Hits: 121
  • 0 Comments

Hanukkah is over, Christmas is right around the corner, and the calendar is about to flip a digit to bring us into 2019. Which means it’s time for Sierra magazine’s annual roundup of the most important environmental stories of the past year. 

“Most important” doesn’t necessarily mean “biggest.” Sure, some of the stories here came via front-page headlines and attracted a lot of clicks. Other topics, however, floated past the national media’s myopic focus on the attention-grabber in the Oval Office. They are important nevertheless—important, that is, if you care about the health of the planet and the ability of human civilization to manage the cascade of environmental challenges that confront us. 

So, without further ado, here are the major environmental stories of 2018, as curated by Sierra editors and the leadership of the Sierra Club. 

1. Climate Scientists Bang the Alarm Bell

PHOTO BY DAVIDSZABO/ISTOCK

Scientists are, by nature and training, a relatively quiet and cautious bunch. They are careful about being too certain in their findings, and they usually avoid making their pronouncements too loudly. All of which makes the string of climate science reports released this fall so exceptional. With unusual clarity and force, climatologists and meteorologists are now warning that destructive climate change is upon us, and that time is running out to avoid the worst imaginable impacts of a warming planet.  

In October, the International Panel on Climate Change published its latest report on the state of the climate, and the findings were dire. The IPCC reported that average global temperatures have increased 1.8°F since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and will hit 2.7°F by 2040 if greenhouse emissions remain on their current trajectory. Such a scenario would lead to a collapse in coral reefs worldwide, a transformed Arctic, and increased floods and droughts. While insisting that the world’s governments and businesses need to move fast to slash emissions, the IPCC also delivered a sobering reality check that “there is no historical precedent for the scale of the necessary transitions, in particular in a socially and economically sustainable way.”  

Then, in November, the Trump administration released the legally mandated National Climate Assessment. (The government sought to bury the report by announcing it the day after Thanksgiving, but the attempt was a total flop.) The 1,600-page report, compiled by agencies across the federal government, was also a downer. “Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us,” the NCA authors concluded.  

And the warnings just kept coming. The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society reported that recent extreme weather events wouldn’t have been possible without rising temperatures connected to human activities. The Global Carbon Project warned that global emissions are accelerating like “a speeding freight train.” In a hard-hitting commentary in Nature, a trio of scientists said over the next 20 years, climate change will occur “faster and more furious than anticipated.”

Scientists are banging the alarm bell as loudly as possible. Can you hear them now? 

Scientists are, by nature and training, a relatively quiet and cautious bunch. They are careful about being too certain in their findings, and they usually avoid making their pronouncements too loudly. All of which makes the string of climate science reports released this fall so exceptional. With unusual clarity and force, climatologists and meteorologists are now warning that destructive climate change is upon us, and that time is running out to avoid the worst imaginable impacts of a warming planet.  

In October, the International Panel on Climate Change published its latest report on the state of the climate, and the findings were dire. The IPCC reported that average global temperatures have increased 1.8°F since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and will hit 2.7°F by 2040 if greenhouse emissions remain on their current trajectory. Such a scenario would lead to a collapse in coral reefs worldwide, a transformed Arctic, and increased floods and droughts. While insisting that the world’s governments and businesses need to move fast to slash emissions, the IPCC also delivered a sobering reality check that “there is no historical precedent for the scale of the necessary transitions, in particular in a socially and economically sustainable way.”  

Then, in November, the Trump administration released the legally mandated National Climate Assessment. (The government sought to bury the report by announcing it the day after Thanksgiving, but the attempt was a total flop.) The 1,600-page report, compiled by agencies across the federal government, was also a downer. “Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us,” the NCA authors concluded.  

And the warnings just kept coming. The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society reported that recent extreme weather events wouldn’t have been possible without rising temperatures connected to human activities. The Global Carbon Project warned that global emissions are accelerating like “a speeding freight train.” In a hard-hitting commentary in Nature, a trio of scientists said over the next 20 years, climate change will occur “faster and more furious than anticipated.”

Scientists are banging the alarm bell as loudly as possible. Can you hear them now? 

If your climate-science-denying, Fox News–watching brother-in-law won’t believe the eggheads, perhaps he’ll believe his own eyes? Like other recent years, 2018 was marred by deadly climate-related disasters that are making it increasingly difficult to dismiss the connection between industrial emissions and weird weather. 

This year we again witnessed storms that were intensified by climate change; research showed that September’s Hurricane Florence dropped about 50 percent more rainfall on the Carolinas than it would have absent global warming. Apocalyptic high temps smashed heat records; in June, the city of Quriyat in Oman recorded the hottest ever low temperature—108°F at night.   

By far the most harrowing climate-related chaos came in the form of the wildfires that swept across large sections of the globe last summer and fall. In northern Europe, freakish wildfires scorched the boreal forests of Sweden (yes, Sweden). In British Columbia, the worst fire season on record included more than 500 fires burning at once as conflagrations forced some 65,000 people from their homes. 

But those awful events were nothing compared to the firestorms that engulfed California. First, the Carr and Mendocino Complex Fires tore across the landscape, with the Carr Fire destroying more than a thousand homes around the city of Redding as the Mendocino fires burned some 460,000 acres, making it the biggest in state history. Then, in November, the Camp Fire in Butte County virtually destroyed the town of Paradise and claimed 86 lives to earn the tragic distinction of the most deadly fire ever in California. Much of Northern California was enveloped in a toxic smoke for weeks. 

Researchers say there is a clear causality between climate change and the recent wave of fires: Years of drought have dried out vegetation and killed trees, while shifting precipitation patterns have lengthened the fire season. The Camp Fire, for example, burned through Thanksgiving, which used to be solidly in the rainy season. 

Unfortunately, the US media did a poor job of connecting the dots between greenhouse gas emissions and the fires. A survey by Media Matters for America found that less than 4 percent of fire coverage from ABC, NBC, and CBS mentioned climate change. But people seem to be making the connections on their own. According to a recent poll, 80 percent of Americans now “believe in” climate change, including two-thirds of Republicans. It may be a puny consolation, but climate denial appears to finally be cracking.   

3. Trump Administration Continues Kamikaze Mission Against the Planet 

The Trump administration’s continued assault on basic environmental and public health protections is so relentless that it’s difficult to know where to start. According to a recent report from the Senate’s Climate Change Task Force, the administration has taken at least 114 anti-environment actions since coming to power—or more than one per week. 

Here are some of the worst environmental rollbacks, or attempted rollbacks, from 2018:

-      The EPA proposed making it easier for power plants to spew carbon pollution into the atmosphere. 

-      The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers began the process to weaken the Waters of the US rule, which protects seasonal wetlands and streams. 

-      The Interior Department said it would allow oil and gas drilling in some 10 million acres of western lands that were previously off-limits to extraction in order to protect the threatened sage-grouse. 

-      The Interior Department granted a permit to an oil company to begin offshore exploration in the Arctic Ocean

-      The administration finalized a pair of rules that will loosen requirements on oil and gas companies to detect and capture fugitive emissions of methane, which is among the most potent greenhouse gases. 

-      Trump’s EPA unveiled its plan to replace the Clean Power Plan (the Obama administration’s signature climate protection initiative) with a plan that the EPA’s own estimates show would make the air dirtier and people sicker. 

-      The EPA moved to dilute federal standards for vehicle fuel economy, while launching an unprecedented assault on California’s ability to set stronger rules for tailpipe emissions

-      The US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act

And that just takes us through the beginning of last summer. If you’re looking for a running tally of the administration’s environmental attacks, the good folks at National Geographic and Save the EPA have you covered.

Donald Trump’s toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance (the president claims he has a “natural instinct for science”) is bad enough. What makes the Trump administration’s long train of abuses against the environment so maddening—so infuriating—is its timing. The climate crisis is accelerating, the biodiversity crisis too. At this point, time is a scarce and dwindling resource—and the administration is squandering it.  

4. Election 2018: Environmental Champions Take Statehouses and House of Representatives  

But take courage and remember this: For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. After two years of mass marches, protests, lawsuits, and social-media hand-wringing, the American public delivered a major rebuke to President Trump by voting a Democratic majority into the House of Representatives and turning statehouses and governorships blue.  

There are any number of ways to parse the election results. (So. Many. New. Female. Elected. Officials.) But there’s no question that the 2018 elections have a distinct green lining. 

In Washington, environmental champions will have a real voice in the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a decade. Progressive rock star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is building momentum for establishing a select committee to lay the foundation for a  Green New Deal. The incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Raúl Grijalva, has promised real oversight of anti-environment shenanigans at the Interior Department. The Democratic leadership has made it clear that any infrastructure bill must contain real investments for climate-smart technologies.  

But expect most of the environmental progress in the next couple of years to come from the states. In Colorado, incoming governor Jared Polis and an expanded Democratic majority in the statehouse will be much more vigilant about the state’s oil and gas industry. Ditto in New Mexico, where longtime environmental stalwart Michelle Lujan Grisham will take over the governor’s office. Governors-elect Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and J.B. Pritzker in Illinois are both on the record in support of transitioning their states to 100 percent clean energy. Steve Sisolak, the next governor of Nevada, backed a successful ballot measure there requiring the state to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. 

The Trump administration’s dangerous agenda now faces real checks and balances.

5. Climate Lawsuits Pile Up Around the Globe 

It’s great that environmental champions will soon control the House of Representatives and many governors’ mansions, but what about the judiciary? During the first couple years of the Trump reign, federal judges have been an important check on the administration’s recklessness (more on that in a minute). At the same time, environmental activists and local officials worldwide were busy in 2018 trying to use the courts to hold governments and fossil fuel corporations accountable for fueling global climate change. 

The most closely watched climate liability case is Juliana v. United States. That’s the lawsuit 21 young people have brought against the federal government, trying to establish the principal that a stable climate is a constitutional right. Once dismissed as a legal Hail Mary pass, this year the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear it, thereby keeping the case in play. While the Justice Department continues to do everything it can to get the case dismissed, there’s a solid chance that what the plaintiffs’ attorneys call “the case of the century” could make its way to trial in 2019. 

Meanwhile, in 2018 the number of city, county, and state lawsuits seeking to recover climate-change-related damages from the major carbon polluters continued to grow. New climate-liability cases targeting the carbon polluters were filed by Baltimore; Boulder and two Colorado counties; King County, Washington; Richmond, California; and the state of Rhode Island. While the cases filed earlier by New York City and San Francisco were dismissed, an unprecedented climate-science tutorial in federal court in March grabbed national attention and marked the final end of Big Oil’s public denial of basic climate change science. 

And this isn’t just a US phenomenon. Similar cases are also wending their way through national courts in South America and the European Union. 

None of the climate-liability cases in the United States are close to reaching a judgment, yet they have already changed the fossil fuel companies’ political calculus. This is a space to keep a close eye on in 2019.             

6. Keep It in the Ground Movement Plugs Oil and Gas Pipelines  

For several years now (at least since Bill McKibben wrote his now-canonical essay, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”), grassroots environmentalists have been making the case that virtually any new fossil fuel development is incompatible with maintaining a stable climate, since we are rapidly burning through our “carbon budget.” This Keep It in the Ground movement has fought gas export terminalsdefeated coal export terminals, and waged pitched battles against the Bayou Bridge pipeline, the Line 3 pipeline, and, famously, the Dakota Access pipeline. Often the resistance takes the form of protests and rallies; sometimes it comes in the form of civil disobedience. And almost always there are some lawyers from the Sierra Club or Earthjustice or NRDC making arguments in court. 

In 2018, some judges started to listen, and dealt a series of major setbacks to pipeline projects. 

In July, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rescinded permits for the 300-mile-long Mountain Valley gas pipeline, ruling that federal officials hadn’t adequately vetted possible impacts on the Jefferson National Forest. Then, in October, the court delivered another setback to the project

And remember the zombie-like Keystone XL pipeline? It, too, ran into trouble in federal court when, in November, a judge ruled that the Trump administration had violated federal administration protocol by summarily dismissing the potential climate change impacts of the long-contested megaproject. Judge Brian Morris wrote that the administration had “simply discarded prior factual findings related to climate change” and that Trump officials needed to offer “a reasoned explanation” for their decision.  

In early December, a federal court tossed out Dominion Energy’s permit to bury part of its 600-mile-long Atlantic Coast Pipeline under the iconic Appalachian Trail. The judges at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals slammed the Forest Service for having “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.” The ruling closed with a reference to Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax: “We trust the United States Forest Service ‘to speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.’” 

7. Wind and Solar Energy Continue to Drop in Price

While grassroots activists are busy trying to cut off the supply of oil and gas, something just as important is happening on the demand side of the energy equation: The cost of renewable electricity generation continues to plummet.  

Exhibit A is an October report from the investment bank Lazard, which found that, in some areas of the United States, new wind and solar plants can undercut existing coal plants. The firm found that even without government subsidies, wind energy costs between $26 a megawatt-hour and $56/MWh, while solar averages between $36/MWh and $44/MWh. In comparison, the average existing coal plant generates electricity somewhere between $27/MWh and $45/MWh. “There are some scenarios, in some parts of the US, where it is cheaper to build and operate wind and solar than keep a coal plant running,” a Lazard researcher told CBS News

While it’s dangerous to make too much of a single report, this latest study confirms a trend that has been building for years: Renewables are now competitive with fossil fuels. If you need more evidence of that, just look at a December leasing of offshore wind blocs on the Atlantic coast, during which wind companies put up a record $405 million in bids.  

The bad news is that incumbent industries continue fighting to the death to maintain their current market positions. A great example would be the Arizona utilities’ ruthless campaign to sink a renewable energy ballot initiative in the sunniest state in the United States. Or the coal industry’s massive inertia, especially in East Asia.  

But the continuing decline in the cost of renewable energy is already changing the politics of climate action. Just look at the growing number of US cities and states that (due in large part to advocacy spearheaded by the Sierra Club) are making a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy.

Embracing clean energy isn’t just smart business—it’s also savvy politics. 

8. Jair Bolsonaro Wins Brazilian Presidency  

If, like many US residents, you were laser-focused on the fall elections in the United States, there’s a chance this story slipped beneath your notice: the October 28 election of right-wing demagogue Jair Bolsonaro to become the next president of Brazil. Many Brazilian progressives—especially women and LGBTQ folks—were outraged by the electoral victory of this self-styled Trump of the South. Bolsonaro’s victory is also awful news for the fate of Earth, and here’s why. 

Brazil is home to about two-thirds of the Amazon Rainforest—famously, “the lungs of Earth”—which plays a crucial role in regulating the planet’s climate and weather patterns, and is also a vast storehouse of carbon. After a years-long lull, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is accelerating again (it increased 13.7 percent between 2017 and 2018), and during his campaign Bolsonaro promised (or threatened, as the case may be) to allow even more forest-clearing. Bolsonaro is closely aligned with the country’s powerful agri-business interests, which are determined to continue clearing the forest to plant soy beans to feed livestock. And although the incoming administration is walking back its threat to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, it has already announced that Brazil will no longer host the 2019 climate summit that was scheduled to take place there. 

Especially worrisome is Bolsonaro’s retrograde and racist stance toward Brazil’s Indigenous population. More than 400 Indigenous reserves dot the Amazon, and Native communities have proven themselves to be (for the most part) excellent stewards of the forest. Bolsonaro, however, appears determined to bulldoze Indigenous rights. “Where there is Indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it,” he said during the campaign, and compared Indigenous reserves to a “chickenpox” on the land. 

For their part, Indigenous groups and environmentalists say they are determined to resist the Bolsonaro agenda. But Bolsonaro’s affinity for Brazil’s 1980s-era murderous dictatorship raises serious concerns about whether his administration will give a wink and a nod to powerful interests that use violence to reach their objectives. Already, Brazil is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be an environmentalist; at least 57 advocates were murdered there in 2017, according to Global Witness. Many people fear this atmosphere of impunity will worsen under the new president.  

Environmentalists worldwide should play close attention to what happens in Brazil in 2019 and beyond. 

9. Wildlife on the Brink 

While climate change continues to dominate most environmental activist energy and media attention (such as it is), there’s an equally worrisome ecological crisis underway: the steady impoverishment of global biodiversity. (You’re welcome, Merry Christmas.)  

The decrease in the number of wildlife and their ranges is so steady that it can be difficult to focus on. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report of 2018, released last fall, helped to bring a smidgen of public attention to the ongoing disaster. WWF reports that between 1970 and 2014, the average populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians declined by 60 percent. And while some small portions of these declines might be due to a changing climate (amphibians seem to be particularly susceptible to climatic changes), most disappearances are due to old-fashioned habitat loss as forests are razed for livestock pasture and native grasslands converted to agriculture. Or, in the simplest terms, we humans are destroying millions—tens of millions—of other creatures’ homes to feed ourselves. 

This ecological genocide (what else to call it?) has now reached such a scale that it may imperil civilization itself. “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF, told The Guardian when the report was released. “This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’—it is our life-support system.” 

Fair enough. But we should also remember this: While wild nature provides many instrumental benefits to humans, others beings like tigers and sea turtles and toads also possess their own intrinsic value. Which means that destroying their homes is just plain—what’s the word I’m looking for here?—wrong

10. Pruitt Booted, Zinke Skedaddles  

No doubt it’s a symptom of our nanosecond-long attention spans and the never-ending news cycle that, here in December, the biggest environmental story of the first half of 2018 seems like an artifact from the Ice Age. I’m talking about the Scott Pruitt scandal-roller-coaster and the EPA administrator’s eventual resignation. 

During the Trump administration’s first year in office, Pruitt was the White House’s golden boy—the hatchet man who gleefully announced the United States’ planned departure from the Paris climate agreement and was willing to engage in policy contortions to defend things like super-polluting big rigs. The EPA administrator was also the epitome of the self-dealing and self-regard that characterizes so many Trump administration officials.

Throughout the winter and spring, Pruitt was the subject of a string of embarrassing revelations, many of them uncovered by Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Sierra Club attorneys. He twisted government regulations to try to get raises for some of his pals from his home state of Oklahoma. He wasted taxpayer monies on a soundproof phone booth, had his office swept for listening devices, and demanded an unprecedented and expensive round-the-clock security detail. He tasked public servants with taking care of his private business—including finding him just the right moisturizer, trying to procure a used mattress, and trying to find his wife a job at Chick-fil-A. On at least one occasion, he asked his driver to use his government vehicle’s sirens to get to a dinner date. Even Fox News got fed up with this parody of a caricature, and in July he was forced to resign in disgrace.

Then, just this past weekend, environmentalists’ other cabinet opponent, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, also resigned. Like Pruitt, Zinke was shadowed by ethics investigations. The Justice Department is examining whether a land deal Zinke had with the chairman of the oil services company Halliburton may have constituted a conflict of interest. 

Unfortunately, neither Pruitt’s nor Zinke’s replacements are much better. The current acting EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist who has continued Pruitt’s agenda, only without the ridiculous scandals. And Zinke’s deputy, David Bernhardt, is a former oil and gas lobbyist.

Which means that, in 2019, environmental watchdogs will have to maintain vigilance to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are actually, you know, protecting the environment. 

Happy New Year?

0

Comments

81595f2dd9db45846609c618f993af1c

© Earth Protect