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The Most Important Environmental Stories of 2016

The past year brought a lot to agonize about, but also some news to cheer and draw inspiration from

It’s been quite a year. I wouldn’t put 2016 down as a particularly great trip around sol, but it has definitely been an eventful, historic year. As we began drawing our annual tally of the most important environmental stories of the year at the Journal, it was hard to look past the dark cloud cast on our movement by the recent election. But look past we did, and we found that it’s been a mixed bag — while the year offered us much grim news, there have also been and some positive, inspiring events and developments that remind us that all hope is never lost. Here’s our list of the most important stories of 2016. These stories aren’t necessarily headline-grabbers, but they are likely to have long-term impacts on the environment, on us, and on our fellow living beings.

The Upset Victory of Donald Trump

Donald Trump for President signPhoto by Tony WebsterTrump's election has been a major setback to the environmental movement. We have to gear up for at least four years of vigorous battles to protect our lands and waters.

The unexpected victory of climate change denying Donald Trump has definitely been a major setback for the environmental movement in the US. There’s a high chance that many of the environmental protections we have fought so hard for in the past might get rolled back. At immediate risk are Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the Paris climate accord, and the powers of the EPA. Trump has also prioritized removing restrictions against coal, oil, and natural gas extraction and reviving “vital energy infrastructure projects” like the Keystone XL pipeline. Given the fossil fuel execs and climate deniers Trump has been tapping for key positions in his administration, the coming years are sure to bring increased federal leasing of lands for fossil fuel extraction, cuts to clean energy research programs, and fewer protections for critical lands and ecosystems.

Looks like, come January, we have to gear up for at least four years of vigorous battles to protect our lands and waters.

Standing Rock: United, We Win

people holding protector sign at Standing RockPhoto by Joe BruskyThe water protectors at Standing Rock offer us much-needed hope that people power can effect real change.

If the next four years are going to be about resistance to authoritarian power, then we need no better example to follow than the non-violent resistance movement at Standing Rock.  What …more

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Arctic Waters Have Been Rescued From Drilling, But What About the Land?

Time is running out for Obama to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the people who depend on it

I’d like to reframe what happened in early November as the opposite of tragedy. Instead of looking at the election results through a lens of doom and gloom, let us view this moment in history as a leverage point, one that has the ability to unite people across the country and the world.

photo of Arctic National Wildlife RefugePhoto by Alaska Region US Fish and Wildlife Service, FlickrThe Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a 19-million-acre wilderness area in Alaska's North Slope region. The Obama administration previously recommended that Congress designate the refuge as a wilderness area.

If we are to capitalize on such a moment of opportunity, hope will be crucial. And although looking for it in the media can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, you can find real hope, active hope, where struggles transform into solutions.

On December 20, President Obama joined Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in protecting vibrant and vulnerable ocean ecosystems from future fossil fuel exploitation, and designated the vast majority of Arctic waters and millions of acres of the Atlantic as indefinitely off-limits to offshore oil and gas leasing.

Today, we can further engage in active hope by continuing this momentum and pressuring the administration to do as much good as possible before leaving office. To that end, permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine and fragile wilderness in Alaska’s North Slope, would be a monumental and fully possible action that could push hope into lived reality.

Although Arctic Alaska is far removed from the day-to-day existence of most Americans, decisions made there reverberate across the country. The refuge encompasses more than 19 million acres, and is home to the Gwich’in Tribe, which shares the land with birds that migrate to and from all 50 US states, polar and grizzly bears, and the Porcupine Caribou herd. The northernmost region, known as Area 1002, is where the caribou come to birth their calves each year. This combination of biological and cultural diversity is one of the most brilliant in the world.

If not for the wealth of oil, the area known by many as “the last great wilderness” might be left alone. Instead, it has been in conflict for decades. It is one of the few regions of the Alaskan Arctic that has not been developed for petroleum extraction.

The oil industry has tried to drill in the Arctic Refuge since its inception, but, fight after …more

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Climate Change Threatens Food Security in Western Nepal, Say Advocates

Extreme drought stresses one of country's most food insecure regions

Tashi Lama, a 52 year-old farmer, seemed unimpressed by my questions about the effect of jalvauparivartan — climate change in Nepali — in his village in the mountains of mid-west Nepal. “I don’t know about jalvauparivartan, but you should have come a few months earlier to see the worst effect of the drought,” he said, referring to what the national government has called the country’s worst drought in at least 30 years. “What’s the point now?” Lama, along with many residents of the Karnali region in western Nepal, has struggled to cope with longterm food insecurity, exacerbated recently by the lack of precipitation.

photo of Bajura District, NepalPhoto by Possible, Flickr A woman rests above along a ridge overlooking terraced fields in western Nepal's Bajura district, which has been experiencing drought since 2015. Migration from Bajura has increased more than 30 percent since the drought began.

The districts of Humla, Jumla, Mugu, Dolpo, and Kalikot in Nepal’s mid-West region, and Bajhang and Bajura in the far-West, regularly face drought and famine, and have been food insecure for more than three decades. The region also struggles with lack of education and child malnutrition. Humla’s Human Development rating was the worst in the country in the United Nations Development Programme’s 2014 Human Development Report. Other neighbouring districts are not far off. 

Some advocates and locals think climate change may be making food insecurity worse, but climate data on the region is hard to come by. A 2016 study from the Karnali region, which looks at precipitation data from 27 monitoring stations between 1981 to 2012, is one of the only regional climate studies, and provides rare insight into the region’s changing climate, showing declining average rainfall and snowfall, along with rising temperatures. Specifically, the researchers found a 10 percent decline in average precipitation since the early ‘80s. Also in decline are the number of rainy days in the region: Karnali has lost, on average, one rainy day per year in the already dry mountain region, and three days per decade in the plains and hills. Rainfall intensity, however, is increasing, which increases risks of flooding.

The study also found that maximum, minimum, and average temperatures in the region have been rising. The maximum temperature has increased at a rate of 0.05°C per year, while the minimum temperature has increased at 0.01°C per year.

Some climate-scientists have suggested that precipitation patterns in much of South Asia, including western Nepal, …more

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Brazil Budget Cuts Put Uncontacted Tribes at Risk, Say Activists

Indigenous people may also face threat from proposed change to land laws

An uncontacted Amazon tribe could be at risk as Brazil makes austerity-driven budget cuts and proposals for constitutional change affecting land rights move through parliament, campaigners have said.

The tribe was photographed from a helicopter by Ricardo Stuckert this month near the border with Peru.

photo of uncontacted tribePhoto by Gleilson Miranda/Secretaria de Comunicação do Estado do Acre An uncontacted tribe in Brazil’s Acre state, photographed in 2012. Budget could put tribes like this and the uncontacted group photographed earlier this month in the Amazon at risk.

“These are dark times if you’re an indigenous person in Brazil,” said Fiona Watson, a field director at the London-based human rights organization Survival International. “For the people in those photos the biggest threat is the loggers and drug traffickers on the Peru side. That’s the immediate, visceral threat. But the other threat is thousands of miles away in [Brazil’s] congress.”

The prospect of budget cuts to the governmental body tasked with protecting indigenous people, Funai, could be the “writing on the wall” for the tribe and the 102 other such uncontacted groups in Brazil, Watson said.

The UN special rapporteur for indigenous rights said this week that federal funding for the department had all but dried up, leaving staff overworked and dealing with a backlog of cases.

Indigenous rights groups are also concerned by PEC 215, a proposed constitutional amendment working its ways through congress that campaigners say could threaten the land rights of indigenous people.

But Watson, who has lived in the Amazon rainforest and has met members of previously uncontacted peoples, said she believed the tribe could still thrive. The people live in a very remote part of the rainforest and the Acre state government is relatively sympathetic to indigenous people’s rights.

Stuckert and José Carlos Meirelles, a tribes expert with the Acre government, who was also on the helicopter, reported that the estimated 300 members of the tribe appeared healthy.

While Watson admitted that little was known about the tribe, the photographs showed a substantial and well-made house, gardens, and crops.

The bows and arrows carried mean the tribe almost certainly hunts for meat. “I imagine hunting is pretty good in that area — tapir, capybaras, wild pigs, probably deer, monkey. They probably do some fishing as well, they probably eat shellfish and …more

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Listening to the Old People, the Land, and the Long Future

Why Bears Ears deserves to be declared a national monument

A coalition of five Native American tribes has been advocating the designation of a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument on culturally significant land in southeast Utah, a proposal that has generated considerable controversy within the state. There is speculation that President Obama will designate the monument under the Antiquities Act before leaving office.

The Canyon Country — in the Four Corners States of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado — can make us shout out in excitement but, even more fundamentally, it is a place that slows us down and inspires our contemplation, reflection, and wonderment.

How do the plants in this rocky, arid landscape make it? How long did it take to make that hole, that arch, across the way? All the other impossible red rock formations, how were they made? Out on the tip of a mesa, how far am I seeing? 80 miles? A hundred? More? Down in the red rock side canyons I find inspiring villages, granaries, kivas, and petroglyphs and pictographs left by the Old People — the Ancestral Puebloans. Those societies were there for thousands of years. How could they have made it for so long in this unforgiving setting?

photo of a canyonphotograph © Stephen Trimble / www.stephentrimble.netCedar Mesa is part of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, and is a sacred landscape to several Native American Tribes. It contains some 56,000 archeological sites.

While more needs to be done, large expanses of the Canyon Country land have been protected. The Canyon Country holds world-renowned national parks, among them Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Monument Valley, Zion, and the Grand Canyon itself — all federal public land, open to all. This is the largest concentration of parks and monuments in the world, mostly a result of the Antiquities Act of 1906, when Congress granted presidents the unilateral right to create national monuments by a stroke of a pen.

The Antiquities Act quickly took root in the Canyon Country. In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt came to the Grand Canyon and declared that 800,000 acres would become the Grand Canyon National Monument. “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now,” the president exhorted from the South Rim, “You cannot improve on it.” Ever since, the Antiquities Act has remained a foundation stone of American conservation policy.

After World War II, interest in the Canyon Country accelerated. Congress made Canyonlands a national park in 1964. Capitol Reef and Arches, both originally created …more

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Obama Bans New Oil and Gas Drilling in Arctic, Atlantic Oceans

Decision will be difficult for successors to reverse

Barack Obama has permanently banned new oil and gas drilling in most US-owned waters in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, a last-ditch effort to lock in environmental protections before he hands over to Donald Trump.

Obama used a 1953 law that allows presidents to block the sale of new offshore drilling and mining rights and makes it difficult for their successors to reverse the decision.

photo of oil rigPhoto by Backbone Campaign, FlickrA rig docked in Seattle last year en route to the Arctic to explore for oil. Climate activists, including a flotilla of kayakers, tried prevent its departure.

However, Obama’s ban — affecting federal waters off Alaska in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea and in the Atlantic from New England to the Chesapeake Bay — is unprecedented in scale and could be challenged by Trump in court.

The president-elect has vowed to unleash the country’s untapped energy reserves and exploit fossil fuels. He has previously questioned the science of climate change, threatened to tear up the Paris climate agreement and appointed climate-change deniers in his cabinet.

This has led to a scramble from environmentalists calling on Obama to impose whatever regulations and executive orders he can to protect his climate legacy.

Tuesday’s move came in a joint announcement by Obama and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who also put a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in its Arctic waters, subject to periodic review.

Obama, currently on holiday in Hawaii and with only a month left in office, said in a statement: “These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth. They reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited.”

“By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region — at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.”

In 2015, just 0.1 percent of US federal offshore crude production came from the Arctic. A Department of Interior analysis shows that, at current oil prices, significant production in the …more

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Climate Justice Under Trump

If we’re both smart and lucky we may be able to slingshot into a mobilization that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to achieve

Was it Al Gore who began the climate-movement tradition of incessantly quoting Winston Churchill? In any case, “We are entering a period of consequences,” and that’s a fact. But rather than rush beyond “consequences” to even darker conclusions, let me make a few claims.

John KerryPhoto by Chris Bentley/The GroundTruth ProjectUS Secretary of State John Kerry addressing the COP22 climate talks in Marraksh, one week after the Trump's election. US leadership in climate negotiations has not been an unambiguous force, and there are many people around the world who would object even to the term.

Trump’s Election Did Not Cost Us 2°C

Before Trump there was Paris, and its celebrated goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C” while pursuing efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” So here’s a question: When Dave Roberts, one of America’s key climate bloggers, posted a post-election reaction piece called “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees,” was he right?

I say he wasn’t.

Note that there’s a bit of nuance in Roberts’ argument. Here’s how he described the strategy that, in his view, Trump’s election had blown out of the water:

“The truth is, hitting the 2-degree target (much less 1.5 degrees) was always a long shot. It would require all the world’s countries to effectively turn on a dime and send their emissions plunging at never-before-seen rates.

It was implausible, but at least there was a story to tell. That story began with strong US leadership, which brought China to the table, which in turn cleared the way for Paris. The election of Hillary Clinton would have signaled to the world a determination to meet or exceed the targets the US promised in Paris, along with four years of efforts to create bilateral or multilateral partnerships that pushed progress faster.

With steady leadership, the US and China would exceed their short-term goals. Other countries would have their willpower fortified and steadily ratchet up their commitments. All this coordinated action would result in a wave of clean energy innovation, which would push prices down lower, which would accelerate the transition.”

Is this a more or less accurate telling? I think it is, though it’s also radically incomplete. For one thing, “US leadership” has not been an unambiguous force, and there are many people around the world who would object even to the …more

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