The Most Important Environmental Stories of 2018

This past year offered us much to be worried about but glimmers of hope flickered through as well.

I don’t know about you, but it to seems to me as though 2018 swept by in a blur of mostly dismal news. As I began drawing up our annual list of the most important environmental stories of the year at the Journal, which, no surprise, skews on the negative side, I couldn’t help but note that even outside the environmental news cycle, the pace of unhappy developments has been unrelenting this past year. From tragic mass shootings, to migrant children being forcefully separated from their families at the border, to Brett Kavanagh’s Supreme Court appointment process that was triggering for so many sexual abuse victims, to the endless chipping away at our democracy by Trump and his cohort, it feels like we’ve been put through a prolonged emotional wringer.

coal for christmas by banksy
From reports confirming that climate chaos is already upon us, to extreme wildifires, wildlife population declines, and Trump's relentless attacks on environmental regulations, 2018 hasn't been kind to the environment. Photo courtesy of banksy.co.uk.

I’m taking some space to acknowledge these events because the environmental movement doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Those of us working to protect our living world are also impacted by the goings on in our society as much anyone else, and this past year’s events have definitely stretched our emotional resources. On the environmental news side, while 2018 gave us much to be concerned about — including the devastating California wildfires and new US and international climate reports — thankfully there have also been and some positive developments that offer hope.

In putting together this list, I sought the collective wisdom of Earth Island’s diverse range of environmental projects, which work on everything from wildlife conservation, to environmental justice, to food and agriculture issues, to climate policy. Here’s our expert-sourced list of the most important stories of 2018 that are likely to have long-term impacts on the environment.

Climate Alarm

Climate chaos is already upon us and we have only about a dozen years to make some drastic changes to avoid the worst impacts of a warming world. That, in not so many words, was the main takeaway from a series of state-of-the-climate reports released during the fall, starting with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C released in early October, followed by the US’s own Fourth National Climate Assessment (which contradicts the president’s stance on the global crisis) released during the Thanksgiving weekend in November, followed in early December by an American Meteorological Society report that linked climate change and recent extreme weather events. Will all these alarming reports finally spur world governments to take meaningful action to significantly curb our emissions? One can hope so, but I’m tending towards agreeing with 15-year-old climate rebel Greta Thunberg, who says that we grown-ups have failed our children and it’s time the younger generation took matters into their own hands.

The California Wildfires

hillside on fire
. Wildfire At Lake Elsinore in Southern California in August 2018. Photo by Kevin/Flickr.

In 2015, California witnessed its most deadly and destructive wildfires season on record. With a combination of weather extremes — record rainfall in 2017 followed by two scorching hot summers — leaving behind a carpet of dry grass and other undergrowth ready for the kindling, the fire season started rather early this year and dragged on past Thanksgiving. A series of wildfires broke out in Northern California in late-June through August, including the Carr Fire that destroyed more than a thousand homes near city of Redding and the Mendocino Complex Fire that burned more than 459,000 acres, making it the largest complex fire in the state’s history.

In November, strong inland winds fanned another round of destructive fires across the state, including the Camp Fire in Butte County, which laid waste the entire town of Paradise, killed 86 people, and destroyed more than 18,000 structures. The state’s deadliest on record, the Camp Fire shrouded much of Northern California in a thick blanket of ash-laden smoke for weeks. In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire raged through Los Angeles and Ventura counties, killing three people, destroying 1,643 structures, including historic movie and TV sets, ranches, and the homes of celebrities, and prompted the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people.

The link between the growing intensity and duration of the fire season and climate change can no longer be dismissed.

Monsanto Suffers a Roundup Blow

In August, seed and pesticide company Monsanto suffered a major blow when a San Francisco Superior Court found the company liable for 46-year-old former groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson’s terminal cancer and awarded him $289 million in damages. The court determined that Monsanto had failed to warn Johnson of the health hazards from exposure to its herbicide, Roundup, and that the corporation had “acted with malice or oppression” for years by targeting academics who spoke up about the possible risks of the key ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” triggering a wave of legal and legislative challenges. The landmark verdict sets a legal precedent for other similar suits against Monsanto, which was acquired by chemical giant Bayer a few years ago. More than 8,000 people have suits pending against Monsanto. Meanwhile, glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup continue to be widely used across the world.

#MeToo Catches Up With the Environmental Movement

metoo poster
Artwork by Nissa Tzun.

The high-profile February resignation of Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle following allegations that he had sexually harassed three female subordinates showed us clearly that the environmental movement isn’t exempt from the kind of misogyny that has led to — make that required — the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. That Pacelle quit a day after the HSUS board voted to let him retain his job and that he very soon landed a job with Animal Wellness Action, a new political action committee run by a former colleague of his, is testament to just how entrenched patriarchal power structures continue to be even within supposedly progressive movements.

Greenpeace is another big green group that has been dealing with sexual harassment scandals at its international offices in recent years. It was in the hot seat again in April over the alleged abusive practices and harassment of women by the executive director of Greenpeace Argentina, Martin Prieto. Prieto was suspended after more than 40 former Greenpeace employees and volunteers wrote a letter accusing him of “discrimination and gender-based violence, abuse of power against female employees, sexual harassment, workplace harassment and bullying.”

Clearly, these are not isolated incidents. As with other work sectors, the environmental movement has to do a better job of addressing and preventing sexual abuse within its ranks. Read more about the many challenges women working to protect Earth continue to face in our special Women and the Environment issue.

Trump’s Relentless War on the Environment

Our climate denying, coal-loving president’s assault on the environment has been so relentless this year (as it was last year) that’s it’s hard to keep up with all the blows. According to a New York Times analysis, since he took office in January 2017, Trump has blocked, delayed, or prepared to repeal nearly 80 Obama-era environmental regulations. The silver lining is that nearly a dozen more rules that were rolled back were later reinstated, often following legal challenges by environmental groups.

The administration’s most egregious attempts to undermine environmental regulations this year include an effort to drastically weaken the Endangered Species Act; plans to scrap Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars and SUVs and revoke California’s special authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks; a new proposal to replace Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which restricts emissions from coal-fired power plants, with a program that would give states the authority to write their own weaker regulations for the power industry; easing regulations requiring oil and gas companies to capture leaking and vented methane, a potent greenhouse gas, on public lands; opening up hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands to oil and gas drilling and approving the first Arctic oil drilling project in federal waters off Alaska; and ordering a rollback of carbon and mercury emission limits for power plants.

Researchers are already predicting that these actions will have far reaching impacts, including making our air and water dirtier to breathe and drink, exposing us to more toxic chemicals, and further imperiling many threatened plant and animal species. According to one analysis, these rollbacks will lead to at least 80,000 additional deaths per decade and cause respiratory problems for more than a million people.

Wildlife on the Wane

Sundan the rhino with his guard
Sudan, the last northern male white rhino in the world, passed away in Kenya in March 2018. He was 45 years old. Now, only two female northern white rhinos remain — the last of their kind on Earth. Photo by Make it Kenya/Stuart Price.

In October, the World Wildlife Fund released a study showing that global populations of vertebrate species have, on average, declined in size by 60 percent in the past four decades. The biannual report examined trends in the global Living Planet Index — which combines data on populations of more than 4,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in 16,705 distinct populations worldwide — to track the decline of wildlife.

As Nat Geo points out, these populations are strategically scattered across continents and biomes so that they can serve as a point of reference for all the species we don’t have data on. The new study found that between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60 percent, largely as a result of habitat loss due to human’s ever-growing consumption resources and direct exploitation. Killing for food is the next biggest cause – 300 mammal species are being eaten into extinction and our oceans are massively overfished.

The scale of this self-sabotage is scary. As a March 2018, UN-backed biodiversity study noted, human destruction of nature is rapidly eroding Earth’s capacity to provide food, water, and security to billions of people across the world.

Japan to Resume Commercial Whaling

Japan has been killing whales for the past three decades in international waters, in particular the South Atlantic, under the guise of performing scientific “research.” In December it finally dropped all pretense and announced that it will leave the International Whaling Commission in June 2019 and resume hunting whales for meat the following month, in defiance of the 1986 global ban on commercial whaling that helped bring many whale species back from the brink of extinction. The Japanese government’s chief spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters the country’s fleet would confine its hunts to Japanese territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, and would end its annual expeditions to the Southern Ocean which have received a lot of opposition from other nations and conservation groups. While this leaves the Southern Hemisphere free of whaling for the first time in centuries, it’s bad news for whales in Japan’s national waters, which stretch for 1.7 million square miles around the country’s coastlines.

The Green New Deal

In the run up to the November elections, which handed Democrats the largest midterm gains since 1974, the phrase “Green New Deal” began cropping up all over town in Washington, DC and among environmental activist circles. The term, which is a nod to Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the 1930s, has been around for a while but received a big boost after progressive Democrats began using it to describe the massive policy changes required to decarbonize the economy, invest in clean energy jobs, and curb runaway climate change. Within weeks of the elections, youth activists from the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats occupied top Democrats’ offices in DC, demanding the party make climate change a top priority. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who’s currently a progressive media darling, has proposed establishing a select committee in Congress to plan the Green New Deal and 37 incoming or sitting House members have pledged to support the plan. Meanwhile, more than 300 state and local legislators have voiced their support for the proposal.

The exact details of what the New Green Deal will entail haven’t been worked out yet, but it’s clearly going to be a key issue in the 2020 elections.

Single Use Plastic Heading Out

The push to cut back plastic production and use, especially single use plastic, gained quite a bit of momentum in 2018. A recent report by the UN Environment Program and the World Resources Institute shows that 127 countries now have policies to regulate plastic bags. These policies, the report says, “include restrictions on the manufacture, distribution, use, and trade of plastic bags, taxation and levies, and post-use disposal” and may vary from country to country, but “the most common form is the restriction on free retail distribution.”

In the US, cities and food service companies are moving so quickly on banning plastic straws that, as Fast Company reports, a paper-straw manufacturer in the US has had to build a new factory to meet demand. Now that’s a bit of good news given that plastic recycling rates dropped some 4.4 percent in 2018 and degrading plastics have been revealed as a source of greenhouse gases.

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