The Most Important Environmental Stories of 2020

A pandemic, climate chaos, a racial reckoning, and a divisive election, this year packed a punch that we are still reeling from.

How do we even begin to wrap our minds around this heartbreakingly difficult year? From a pandemic that has killed close to 2 million people worldwide and continues to upend our lives in so many ways, to a nation brought face-to-face with its ugly, racist underpinnings, to a divisive election season, which too, continues to drag on — it feels like 2020 packed a decade’s worth of high-impact events in 52 weeks.

In putting together this list of the most important stories of 2020 that are likely to have long-term impacts on the environment, we sought — as we often do — 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. As many of them pointed out, while it has indeed been an incredibly hard year, there have been some silver linings as well.

A Pandemic that Paused the World

The Covid-19 pandemic, which spread across the globe in a matter of months thanks to our modern, highly-connected economies and personal lives, underscored how our relentless destruction of wild places is increasing our exposure to new pathogens that can cause untold suffering. As of December 28, more than 81.1 million Covid-19 cases have been confirmed, with more than 1.77 million deaths.

A Covid-19 mobile testing center in Glenn Island Park, New Rochelle, Mar. 14, 2020. Photo by Sgt. Amouris Coss/ U.S. Army National Guard.

The pandemic’s varied impacts on public health, the economy, and the environment has undeniably surpassed everything else this year. It has disrupted regular life across the world, rendered hundreds of thousands jobless, even homeless, caused the largest global recession since the Great Depression, and upset supply systems leading to food and goods shortages. While the resultant sudden decline in commuting and travel has led to a temporary drop in air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, contrary to common perception, the pandemic hasn’t been good for biodiversity or conservation. Researchers have struggled to collect data under travel restrictions, a slowdown in tourism has impacted funding for conservation projects, and there has been an increase in land-grabbing, deforestation, poaching, illegal mining, and other destructive activities in many parts of the world where protected areas have been left unguarded.

The one hopeful thing that emerged out of this terrible time is an increased public interest in nature. Though, again, access to the outdoors is a privilege that’s unequally distributed. (See our Covid-19 coverage.)

A Year of Climate Chaos

The massive August 2020 Complex Fire in the Coast Range of Northern California was both the single-largest wildfire and the largest fire complex in recorded California history. Photo courtesy of USDA Pacific Southwest Forest Service.

Early in the year, scientists at the University of East Anglia warned that human-induced climate change would continue to increase the likelihood of wildfires and other weather events around the globe. They published their report in January, as a bushfire season in southern Australia devastated millions of acres, killed dozens of people, and displaced wildlife. The rest of the year saw fires burn in Siberia, parts of Africa, Brazil’s Amazon, and much of the American West. California alone saw a record-breaking 4.17 million acres burned this year.

But fires aren’t the only symptom of a warming planet. This year included the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. Glaciers and ice caps have continued to melt. In the Arctic, researchers logged the second-lowest sea ice extent, following a summer of northern heat waves and record-shattering temperatures. A town in Siberia hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while California’s Death Valley logged the highest temperature ever recorded. Climate scientists warn that this warming is already causing irreversible damage on the Antarctic ice sheet, ensuring a future of rising sea levels.

The US topped the list of countries financially impacted by the climate crisis, with $60 billion in damages.

Race and Environment

The environmental movement has vowed to work towards racial justice, starting with elevating the voices of people of color within the movement. That’s going to take some real effort. Photo by David Andrews.

This summer, a video recording of the horrifying murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop laid bare, yet again, just how entrenched racism is in America. Floyd’s killing, and the fatal shootings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery earlier in the year, precipitated a national uprising against systemic racism that has forced all institutions, work sectors, professions, and movements to reexamine their own present and historical biases.

The environmental movement, which was already slowly beginning to understand and acknowledge the deep connections between white supremacy, colonialism, and environmental injustice thanks to the leadership of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color within the movement, made a valiant effort to show up for the Black Lives Matter movement. Major groups like Sierra Club, the American Museum of Natural History, and Audubon have also come out and acknowledged the racist and/or prejudiced views of their legends — John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and James Audubon — and have vowed to work towards repairing “some of the harms done” and elevating the voices of people of color within the movement.

That’s going to take some work. As Andres Jiminez, executive director of Green 2.0 points out: to move beyond just checking the box, “there needs to be an understanding that organizations need to change from bottom to top.” Western environmentalists also need to understand how deeply American environmentalism’s racist roots have influenced global conservation practices, and how, as a result, “protected areas around the world continue to yield pernicious impacts on local communities, and, to some extent, on the local ecology as well.”

The Most Anti-Nature President

The Trump administration has skirted the advice of scientists by attempting to roll back nearly 200 environmental regulations and policies, including relaxing rules on mercury emissions from power plants. Photo by Kurt Bauschardt.

Donald Trump has spent much of the last four years gunning for his place as the “most anti-nature president in US history.” Among endangered species protections, emissions standards, water policy, and any measurable action on climate change, the Trump administration has skirted the advice of scientists by attempting to roll back nearly 200 environmental regulations and policies.

This year alone, those rollbacks included relaxing rules on mercury emissions from power plants; opening up the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial trawlers; allowing more loggers into Alaska’s Tongass National Forest; reducing the amount of US waterways protected by the Clean Water Act; and weakening the National Environmental Policy Act. The Trump administration also continued to water down the Endangered Species Act, denied the researched link between common agricultural pesticides and health problems among farm workers and their families, and officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement.

“I’ve never seen such an orchestrated war on the environment or science,” Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush, told Nature.

Biden Elected POTUS

Joe Biden might not have been environmentalists’ first choice, but his vow to put climate policy at the center of his domestic and foreign policy definitely won many over. Photo courtesy of joebiden.com.

In terms of putting an end to this “orchestrated war on the environment and science,” Joe Biden’s election win is probably the most important development of the year. Biden might not have been environmentalists’ first choice, but his vow to put climate policy at the center of his domestic and foreign policy definitely won many over.

The president-elect has already pledged to rejoin the Paris Accord on his first day in office in January, and has promised to work on undoing Trump’s rollbacks as well. While his cabinet picks have mostly been centrist Democrats (think Tom Vilsack for agriculture secretary), Biden’s picks for positions related to climate change and the environment — Senator John Kerry as special presidential envoy on climate change, former EPA director Gina McCarthy as his domestic counterpart, Michael Regan as EPA chief, and Deb Haaland as the Interior department head — are, as RL Miller of the group Climate Hawks Vote points out, “an encouraging mix of tested government veterans, some fresh faces, and a truly groundbreaking choice for secretary of the interior” — even if some of these choices haven’t pleased all progressives.

Already, Biden’s position on climate change is sending a clear signal to industry, state and local governments, and other nations that the federal government is going to be serious about tackling the issue during his tenure. Environmentalists, of course, will have to keep the pressure on.

Fossil Fuels Down, Renewables Up

The drop in fossil fuel demand could either portent a temporary recession, or — depending on whether governments actually have the political will and foresight to make massive investments in clean energy technologies the center of their economic recovery plans —could spell the end of the road for fossil fuels. Photo courtesy of BLM Oregon.

The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in the largest decline in global energy demand over the past 70 years, one of the few silver linings in this year. According to the International Energy Agency, in the first quarter of 2020, demand decreased by 3.8 percent relative to the first quarter of 2019. In April, oil futures prices briefly dropped below zero. For a short window of time, it was actually possible to be paid to take oil! As a result of the drop in demand, global CO2 emissions in 2020 are expected to fall to an unprecedented level of 8 percent (around 2.6 gigatons) relative to 2019.

This drop could either portent a temporary recession, or — depending on whether governments actually have the political will and foresight to make massive investments in clean energy technologies the center of their economic recovery plans —could spell the end of the road for fossil fuels.

It should be acknowledged though, that this drop came at a horrible cost to human lives and livelihoods and a deep economic recession that’s going to be difficult to climb out of, not as a result of a just transition to a green economy. But as Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks, wrote in an op-ed earlier this year, “every crisis is an opportunity. Let’s make sure we use this crisis not to fuel existing climate and health crises, but to build a better future.”

Our Diet May Determine our Climate

Fighting climate change would require a drastic change in how we produce and consume food. Photo by Johny Goerend / Unsplash.

In November, a multinational research team published an article in Science that offered a scathing critique of our global food system. Even if fossil fuel emissions were “eliminated immediately,” the study says, “emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit warning to 1.5 degrees Celsius and difficult even to realize the 2 degree target” of the Paris Climate Agreement. Fighting climate change would require a drastic change in how we produce and consume food, it says.

This study adds to a growing body of research by scientists and food system experts that warn of the climate impact of high-emission, high-waste industrial agriculture. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019 warned that the global food production system, including packaging and transportation, accounts for more than a third of total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, a third of that produced food remains uneaten.

“Food matters to climate,” one of the lead authors, Michael Clark of University of Oxford, told former Journal columnist Anna Lappé in Civil Eats. “And if we continue eating the way we are, it will result in catastrophic climate change.”

Plastic is Everywhere

The pandemic has spurred the use of single-use plastics and thus put an extra strain on ocean ecosystems. Photo by Geoff Livingston.

Plastic has reached every corner of our planet. It floats in the deepest part of the ocean and sticks to the snows on the tallest peaks — and pollutes everywhere in-between. It’s in the fish we catch, and the water we drink. And it’s ubiquity shows no sign of abating. This year, researchers have assessed how the pandemic has spurred the use of single-use plastics and thus put an extra strain on ocean ecosystems.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a group of medical researchers in Italy recently discovered particles from cosmetics, paints, and packaging materials in the placentas of unborn babies. “It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities,” Antonio Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynaecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, told reporters. This study followed another that found that babies fed formula milk in plastic bottles may be ingesting millions of particles each day. The potential health impacts are still being researched, but scientists agree that the evidence is undoubtedly a matter of public health concern.

An Amazon Land Rush

An aerial shot shows the contrast between forest and agricultural landscapes near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. The current scale of deforestation in the Amazon threatens one of Earth’s critical carbon sinks. Photo by Kate Evans/CIFOR.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon soared this year. Government data showed that in 2020, land users cleared 2.7 million acres — a 9.5 percent increase from the year earlier. The rate of increase is lower than 2019’s astounding 34 percent, but this year’s land area of destruction marks a 12-year high.

The destruction is no surprise: Starting on the campaign trail in 2018, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly vowed to weaken environmental protection for the Amazon in a bid to ramp up development of commercial agriculture and mining in the region. Some say that his rhetoric has also emboldened illegal ranching and mining in the forest. Satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research now shows clear evidence of a land grab in the Amazon.

Aside from the impact on the human and nonhuman communities in the world’s largest rainforest, the current scale of deforestation in the Amazon threatens one of Earth’s critical carbon sinks. Researchers have estimated that deforestation and land-clearing fires in the first eight months of the year released 226 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — about half of the country’s annual total carbon emissions.

Deadly Year for Environmental Defenders in Colombia

Javier Francisco Parra a 47-year-old environmental official in central Colombia, was assassinated on December 3. Photo Cormacarena / courtesy of Mongabay.

On December 3, Javier Francisco Parra Cubillos, a 47-year-old environmental official in central Colombia, was fatally shot several times by two men on a motorcycle as he was traveling through a local municipality. Cubillos’ killing brought the number of environmental defenders and Indigenous leaders assassinated in Colombia, between January 1 and December 6, 2020, up to 284, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), making this by far the deadliest year on record for environmental and social justice activists in the country. The latest annual report by Global Witness, based on 2019 figures (of 64 killings of activists), had ranked Colombia as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders. Tragically, the situation there seems to have become exponentially worse this year.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Office, there are several reasons for this growing violence against environmentalists in Columbia, including the challenges of implementing the 2016 Peace Agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, part of which involves land reform and programs meant to encourage farmers to swap illegal crops for legal harvests. The resulting shifts in local power dynamics is driving increased violence.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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