The Ten Most Important Environmental Stories of 2013
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
Ah, the winter holidays. Christmas trees, sugary treats, alcohol-fueled office parties, binge shopping … and end-of-year Best of Lists. No December is complete without all of those Top Ten compilations in which we wistfully look back at the year-that-was. Sometimes these lists are little more than click-bait (“Top Ten Miley Moments” anyone?), but often they’re a great reminder of the year’s highs and lows.
There are a couple of excellent round-ups for people who care about the environment. TIME’s environment correspondent, Bryan Walsh, has a smart take here. And I also really enjoyed this list put together by Mongabay’s Rhett Butler.
Below are my picks for the most important environmental stories of 2013. They’re obviously subjective, and not at all complete. Ten, after all, is a completely arbitrary number. (You can see my runners-up at the bottom of the page.)
Without further ado, here’s my list of the biggest environmental stories of 2013.
Atmospheric CO2 Tops 400 PPM
Since 1958, the Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawai‘i’s Big Island has been keeping track of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and in May its readings crossed a worrisome threshold. For the first time in recorded history, the global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 400 parts per million. The last time Earth had such a high concentration of the heat-trapping gas was about four million years ago – and global temperatures then were 4 degrees Celsius higher than they are today, while global sea levels were between 5 and 40 meters higher. Scientists at Mauna Loa say we’re on track to hit 450 ppm of CO2 within a few decades – far beyond the 350 ppm level that NASA climatologist James Hansen says is a safe number.
Sierra Club Embraces Civil Disobedience
In February, on the eve of the large Forward on Climate march in Washington, dozens of environmental leaders were arrested in front of the White House in a protest demanding presidential action on global warming. This in itself isn’t big news, not after the series of sit-ins staged at the White House calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. But among those arrested were Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, and Allison Chin, at the time the president of the group’s board of directors. In a major shift in policy, the US’s oldest environmental organization has decided to embrace non-violent civil disobedience as a campaigning tactic. The Club’s shift seems emblematic of a new aggressiveness and urgency among environmentalists, including the Big Green Groups. In the current issue of The Progressive, writer Rick Bass explains his own embrace of civil disobedience in defense of the planet: “I get arrested because I believe, in the words of Reverend Lennox Yearwood, that this [climate change] is our era’s lunch counter moment – the one time that comes every generation or two, or every third or fourth generation, where you have a chance to stand together and deflect a thing very much like evil, or even evil itself – and because I believe, again in Yearwood’s words, that this is our generation’s Selma and Birmingham.” Big words, bolstered by brave actions and, given our current situation, coming just in time.
The Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement
Watching the grassroots campaign for fossil fuel divestment reminds me of seeing an elephant clamber to its feet – the process is lumbering and ungainly and a bit unsteady, but you get the sense that once it’s on the move, there will be no stopping it. In 2013, environmentalists across the US launched dozens of campaigns to convince universities, colleges, and municipalities to sell their shares in oil, gas, and coal companies. So far there have been more defeats than victories; activists suffered some high-profile losses when Harvard, Brown and Middlebury College declined to divest. But – as the many tributes to Nelson Mandela reminded us – the 1980s divestment campaign against South African apartheid (on which the fossil fuel campaign is modeled) endured many setbacks before it gained success. The fossil fuel divestment efforts have proven themselves to be an excellent vehicle for maintaining public opposition to the carbon barons, something that people can really sink their energy into. You can bet that divestment will keep making headlines in 2014.
US Oil Production Beats Imports
For the first time in nearly 20 years, domestic US oil production surpassed oil imports, the Energy Department announced in November. From an environmental standpoint, this is cause for both celebration and worry. First, the good news: this was due, in part, to the fact that oil use in the United States is on the decline, mostly because Americans are driving less and our automobiles are getting better mileage than ever before, thanks to tough new federal fuel standards. The bad news: oil extraction in the US is skyrocketing, thanks to unconventional techniques like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Within two years, production from North American shale deposits in places North Dakota and Texas could surpass every OPEC member except for Saudi Arabia. And with increased production comes an increased risk of oil spills, increased disturbance to wildlife, and increased impacts on the landscape. In October, for example, a ruptured pipeline spilled 865,000 gallons of oil across the North Dakota prairie before it was detected.
Much of the oil that comes out of those North Dakota oil fields is transported via rail; in a new shift, trains move an estimated 1 million barrels of oil around North America every day. But safety and public disclosure standards appear not have kept up with the growth in shipping petroleum by rail. In July, a 74-car freight train moving Bakken crude oil ran away, derailed, and then exploded in the Quebecois town of Lac-Mégantic. Forty-seven people died (in a town of less than 6,000 folks) and much of the historic downtown was destroyed. The disaster has sparked a debate about the safety of moving oil by rail, a trend that is likely to increase as the drilling boom continues. Coupled with the April explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas that killed 15 people, the disaster in Lac-Mégantic was another horrible reminder of the inherent risks of living in an industrial society.
Obama Says “Climate Change”
photo courtesy EcoWatch
It only took four-and-a-half years and a superstorm walloping New York City, but in June President Obama finally gave his first major policy speech focused exclusively on climate change. In a carefully stage-managed address at Georgetown University (the president spoke outside, in the sun, on steamy Washington day, in his shirtsleeves), Obama laid out a detailed blueprint for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and – this is crucial – preparing for and adapting to world of extreme weather and rising oceans. Of course, a speech is just hot air if not followed by action. But already the administration is making good on some of the president’s promises. In September the EPA released new rules for carbon pollution from future power plants that will make it all but impossible (technologically, financially) to construct new coal-fired facilities. In October, the Treasury Department said the US would no longer fund overseas energy plants that have a “high carbon intensity.” And just last week the president tapped climate hawk John Podesta to become a special White House advisor – another encouraging sign that Obama is preparing to use his executive powers to take action on climate change.
Fires and Floods
Statistically, at least, this was a relatively quiet year for wildfires in the West. But the massive Rim Fire that burned 250,000 acres around Yosemite National Park and the tragic deaths of 19 firefights trying to contain a blaze around Prescott, AZ were reminders that wildfires are becoming more ferocious. The Rim Fire, the largest in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada, was especially intense; about a quarter of the fire’s area was severely burned, meaning that most of the trees died, and won’t come back for years. While wildfires are a natural part of forest ecology in the West, we also know that global climate change is exacerbating the risk of higher intensity fires. The fires had barely cooled in California when a deluge of rainfall caused unprecedented floods in Colorado. The floods destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, forced the evacuation of thousands of people, and resulted in at least $2 billion in damages. Together, the fires and floods are confirming people’s sense that extreme weather events are linked to global climate change. According to a poll released in the spring, about six in ten Americans now say “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.” In 2013, more people came to see that climate chaos is the new normal.
Yeb Sano’s Emotional Appeal at the Warsaw Climate Talks
Speaking of extreme weather, by far the most incredible weather event of the year was Typhoon Haiyan, the massive cyclone that ripped through the Philippines in early November, killing at least 6,000 people. By a weird tweak of coincidence, the storm came just as negotiators from around the world were meeting in Warsaw for the latest UN-sponsored climate talks. When it came time for the Filipino representative, Yeb Sano, to speak at the opening session, he unleashed a powerful speech that brought other delegates to tears. “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness,” Sano said as he talked about his brother gathering the dead bodies of storm victims. “We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.” Sano’s speech helped to illustrate the core injustice of climate change: Those who have done the least to cause global warming are likely to suffer the worst consequences. And Sano’s leadership helped push the issue of “loss and damages” – that is, who will pay for the costs of climate chaos – to the center of the Warsaw talks. As the UN negotiations churn forward in the years to come, you can expect to hear much more about loss and damages, climate debt and climate reparations.
Just Label It
Sustainable food activists are now 0-for-2 in their efforts to pass state referendums requiring special labels on foods containing genetically modified organisms. In November, voters in Washington narrowly defeated a GMO labeling measure, just a year after a similar loss in California. But the intensity of the Washington fight and the national coverage it received just went to prove that transparency in our food system is an important issue for millions of Americans. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, good food forces racked up a pair of wins when Kauai and the Big Island passed new local laws requiring disclosures of the use of GMOs and pesticides, and restricting GM plantings. Expect GM food to keep generating headlines in 2014, as the food manufacturers and chemical and seed companies seek to move the issue to Washington, DC so they can pre-empt state and local laws they don’t like.
In just a few years, the grassroots opposition to natural gas fracking has become one of the most vigorous strands of the larger environmental movement. At the Forward on Climate rally in the capital, for example, easily a fifth of all the placards in the crowd of 35,000 had to do with gas drilling. This fall anti-fracking forces chalked up a couple of important wins. In the November elections, voters in four Colorado towns passed moratoriums against the controversial drilling technique. And just last week the Dallas City Council approved a measure that would effectively ban fracking in the city limits. But while most rank-and-file environmentalists are staunchly opposed to fracking, many Democratic leaders (including President Obama) are boosters of natural gas, which they view as a less dangerous alternative to coal. Given that division, you can bet that fracking will dominate environmental news in 2014, and probably in 2015 and 2016, and beyond.
Other Environmental Stories of Note in 2014
- The US Fish and Wildlife Service formally moved to take gray wolf off the endangered species list, even as the number of wolves killed by hunters continues to grow.
- Sally Jewell, a former oil and gas engineer and longtime CEO of REI, became the newest Secretary of Interior.
- A scrappy website, Inside Climate News, won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the rupture of an oil pipeline carrying tar sands crude.
- Speaking of which, in March a pipeline owned by ExxonMobil busted open in Mayflower, Arkansas, spilling about 12,000 barrels of diluted bitumen – that is, heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands.
- Tom Steyer, a benevolent billionaire, used his riches to punish climate change deniers and reward climate hawks. His campaign donations proved crucial in the Massachusetts US Senate race, Virginia Governor’s race, and local elections in Whatcom County, Washington, site of a proposed coal-export facility.