The Most Important Environmental Stories of 2021

Looking back at a year of losses, wins, and signs of hope.

Bookended by an armed insurrection against the seat of US democracy in January and yet another Covid-19 surge in December, and peppered all along with multiple instances of clear evidence of a climate and biodiversity crisis edging dangerously beyond our control, 2021 has been a loss and anxiety-ridden roller coaster for many of us. But, as is always the case, it also offered us moments of joy, inspiration, and hope. During this time of reflection, we share with you the Journal team’s annual roundup of key environmental news in the year that was.

We Didn’t Quite ‘Make It’ on Climate Action

This is “the make it or break it year,” for climate action, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said back in April at the launch of the World Meteorological Organization’s report on the State of the Global Climate 2020 that highlighted worsening climate change impacts. Four months later, in August, while releasing the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on the current state of the climate, his tone became more urgent. This is “code red for humanity,” he said. Words aside, the signs of climate weirding, of course, have been everywhere this year, from rain, instead of snow, falling in Greenland for the first time in recorded history, to the “heat dome” that killed more than 200 in the Pacific Northwest, to hurricanes that flooded New York and other East Coast cities, to far deadlier flooding in Germany and China, and wildfires raging everywhere from the thawing Arctic to Greece to Australia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica is set to break away from its land attachment in maybe as little as three to five years and eventually release all its water into the ocean, raising sea levels worldwide by more than 2 feet.

The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, sometimes referred to as the “Doomsday Glacier,” holds enough ice to raise sea levels over two feet. The warming ocean is eroding the glacier’s eastern ice shelf from below and scientists warn that it could collapse into the ocean in as little as three to five years. Photo by James Yungel/NASA.

Even as we write this, in the middle of a record-breaking stormy and snowy December in California that is going to provide some drought relief in the region, climate scientists are expressing concern that a warm atmospheric river could lead to rain that will melt the snowpack and possibly cause catastrophic flooding. Meanwhile temperatures in Alaska reached a record high of 670F!

We know what we need to do to avoid things from getting absolutely out of hand — cut global greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by 2030. That’s a tight timeline. Unfortunately, as November’s Glasgow climate conference showed yet again, global government’s just can’t get it together to take bold, timely, meaningful climate action. There’s hope yet though. But as Lena Greeenberg of Corporate Accountability writes, “COP26 and its 25 predecessors cannot be the lone metric for progress on climate, the climate justice movement has grown bigger and bolder than ever before.”

Bottom line, saving our world will require all of us to step up, big time.

The Environment Under Biden

When Joe Biden assumed command of the White House in January of this year, it was expected that he would signal a 180-degree turn from his predecessor it terms of environmental policy. In many ways, in his first year as president, Biden has delivered. Where Trump dramatically reduced Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, Biden restored these national monuments to their former protection. Where Trump paved the road for logging into Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, Biden put it to a halt. Trump’s “secret science” rule, which aimed to delegitimize public health research that scrutinizes industry chemical use, was quickly overturned by Biden.

The list goes on. To keep track of Biden’s damage control, Columbia Law School’s deregulation tracker was rebranded the “reregulation” tracker.

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah protects one of most significant cultural landscapes in the United States, with thousands of archaeological sites and important areas of spiritual significance. Trump had dramatically reduced Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, Biden restored these national monuments to their former protection. Photo by Bob Wick/BLM

Biden’s approach to climate is also a far cry from Trump’s reckless denialism. Biden’s infrastructure bill, for instance, would funnel billions of dollars to renewable energy development, a civilian climate corps, and projects to help communities better face fires and floods.

Of course, the Biden administration’s environmental successes don’t tell the whole story. One recent, damning report from the nonprofit Public Citizen shows that Biden has a higher per month average of approved oil and gas drilling permits on public lands than Trump did during the first three years of his term. This data does not include the largest ever auction of offshore oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico last month. Biden’s infrastructure plans were also derailed by Republican senators and Democratic senator Joe Manchin, who refuses to support the bill because of its swift transition from the fossil fuel economy.

While we can certainly celebrate the many examples that show that the current administration isn’t being led by Trump, the current president’s promise to “build back better” is still, at this point, just a promise.

Grassroots Activists Hold the Line Against Pipelines, Logging

From British Columbia, to California, to Minnesota, environmental activists and land defenders have continued to defend their lands and communities. On Canada’s Vancouver Island, First Nations members and other activists maintained blockades to the Fairy Creek area, protecting the region’s old-growth forests from would-be loggers. Since last year, more than 1,000 protesters have been arrested there. Elsewhere in British Columbia, the Wet’suwet’en have continued their land reoccupation and their fight to block Coastal Gaslink from constructing a natural gas pipeline through their unceeded territory. In November, the Canadian Royal Mounted Police arrested 29 people at the Gidim’ten blockade, but the Wet’suwet’en remain steadfast in keeping the blockade going.

Wet’suwet’en members in British Columbia have continued their land reoccupation and their fight to block Coastal Gaslink from constructing a natural gas pipeline through their unceeded territory. Photo courtesy of Gidimt’en Checkpoint Facebook page.

In California’s Mendocino County, activists have also been putting their bodies on the line to defend old-growth. There, tree sitters temporarily foiled plans to log Redwoods in Jackson Demonstration State Forest. But their work isn’t done yet — the logging plans are still on the books. As grassroots activist Chad Swimmer told the Journal, “We’re making a lot of waves, but we need a permanent solution.” Meanwhile, in Minnesota, hundreds of people have been arrested or cited this year for protesting another pipeline: Enbridge’s Line 3, which carries oil from Alberta’s tar sands to Wisconsin. Though the Line 3 project became operational in October, Water Protectors maintain their opposition and are now monitoring the pipeline for leaks.

Finally, among the many battles playing out across North America and the world, activists were able to celebrate at least one definitive win: In June, the notorious Keystone XL pipeline was officially cancelled.

Environmental Defenders in the Crosshairs

Defending Earth, however, continues to be a dangerous undertaking in many parts of the world. The key driver of the climate crisis, rampant exploitation of natural resources and extractive industries, is also exacerbating violence against environmental activists and land defenders. In September, Global Witness reported that 227 land and environmental activists, averaging more than four people a week, were murdered in 2020 — the highest number ever recorded for a second consecutive year.

The violent trend continued into this year. In January, six rangers at Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo were killed in an ambush by a local militia group. That same month, Colombian conservationist and community leader Gonzalo Cardona was assassinated while returning home from a yellow-eared parrot bird count in the Andes. In April, conservationist Rory Young, the co-founder and CEO of the anti-poaching outfit Chengeta Wildlife, and two Spanish journalists were killed in an ambush by gunmen while on patrol in Arly National Park in eastern Burkina Faso. In late November, Chilean anti-dam activist Javiera Rojas was found murdered in an abandoned house Calama city.

These losses are among the few that have been documented. The toll is like much higher as many more attacks against land defenders occur in remote locations and go unreported. And Global Witness points out, “these lethal attacks are taking place in the context of a wider range of threats against defenders including intimidation, surveillance, sexual violence, and criminalization.”

Attack on Apex Predators

Millions of wolves once roamed freely across North America until the United States government led a century-long extermination plan that nearly eradicated them from the Lower 48. Today, wolves are relegated to remnant populations in parts of the Great Lakes region and the American West. But this year has shown that the war on wolves is far from over.

This year has shown that the war on wolves and grizzlies is far from over. Photo by Emi Gonzalez.

After the Trump administration finalized a delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act in January, state officials have made repeated attacks on the apex predator. In April, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed a bill that would allow hunters to kill 85 percent of the state’s 1,200 or so wolves, while later easing regulations on hunting methods. This followed similar moves in Idaho and Wisconsin, where state officials authorized the killing of 300 wolves, double the state biologists’ recommendations.

And it’s not just wolves in the crosshairs. Earlier this month, Gianforte announced that Montana would petition the Biden administration to lift protections for grizzlies around Glacier National Park. This petition parallels similar efforts by Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon to delist Yellowstone grizzlies, which would initiate the first grizzly trophy hunt in the area since the bruin was listed by the ESA in 1975.

State officials, with support from hunting and ranching groups, say that wolf and grizzly populations have grown too large to make peaceful neighbors. Scientists, however, say these species are far from recovered. Evidently, state officials have shown that our relationship with these apex predators hinges on contest rather than coexistence.

Green Tech Tradeoff

There’s no doubt that phasing out fossil fuels is one of the most effective ways to curb carbon emissions and quell the harshest impacts of the climate crisis. Green energy — in the form of solar farms, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and so on — offers a replacement that many progressives have pushed for decades.

But over the last year, it’s become obvious that there’s a cost to this green energy transition, particularly when that transition depends on a new market of consumer goods and a supply chain of raw natural resources. Demand for the rare earths and other critical minerals that make green technology possible has skyrocketed. For mining corporations, the climate crisis is in opportunity.

Almost a year ago, environmentalists, tribal members, and ranchers began congregating at Thacker Pass in northern Nevada, the site of a future lithium mine, to save culturally and ecologically significant land from this new wave of extraction. They’re still there, arguing that Thacker Pass — and many other lithium deposits around Nevada and eastern California — are on the chopping block as sacrifice zones for green energy.

The Chemetall Foote Lithium Operation in Clayton Valley, a dry lake bed in Esmeralda County, Nevada. Demand for the rare earths and other critical minerals that make green technology possible has skyrocketed. For mining corporations, the climate crisis is in opportunity. Photo by Doc Searls.

The problem extends beyond Nevada. Corporations have gone after cobalt in the Congo, copper in Zambia, lithium in Chile, and so on — destroying landscapes and endangering the health of the people who call these places home. “This land is being endangered by our climate solutions,” wrote Rishi Sugla in Required Reading: Climate Justice, Adaptation and Investing in Indigenous Power.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Some advocates say that addressing climate change will require a larger overhaul of our energy systems, like decentralizing energy sources or focusing on economic degrowth. Either way, solving the climate crisis will require more than simply replacing one extractive industry with another.

Big Polluters’ Big Misinformation Campaign

Though you wouldn’t know it by the rhetoric they use today, the fossil fuel industry has understood the science of climate change for more than half a century. But rather than acknowledge it, they initiated what became a decades-long campaign to cast doubt on and deny the links between the burning of fossil fuels and the climate crisis. This disinformation strategy has been terribly successful, stymying good-faith efforts to address the climate crisis in the US and abroad.

While Big Oil has yet to be held truly accountable for this deception, 2021 was a year of reckoning for the industry. This fall, the House Oversight and Reform Committee summoned industry heads for a day of questioning over their companies’ disinformation campaigns, and threatened them with subpoenas. Dozens of cities, counties, and states are suing fossil fuel giants for their role in the crisis, some alleging that the industry’s decades of deception on the subject amounted to fraud.

Over the past year, the role of PR agencies in facilitating Big Oil’s lies has made headlines as well. Researchers have published on the role of PR firms in shifting public conversation around climate change, and an emerging campaign calls on ad agencies to cut ties with Big Oil. Social media giants, too, are being called out. An analysis published ahead of COP26, for example, found that the quantity of climate disinformation on platforms like Facebook is increasing, and activists are pushing social media networks like Meta, Twitter, and TikTok to better tackle it.

It isn’t just fossil fuel interests that are being called-out for their lies as of late. Activists are also putting the pressure on Big Plastic’s misleading claims around sustainability. Earth Island Institute, which publishes the Journal, sued both Coca Cola and Blue Triton (formerly Nestle) for false and deceptive advertising this year. The Coca-Cola suit noted that the beverage company is the biggest generator of plastic waste in the world, yet markets itself as green.

The Fight for Food and Farming Justice Continues

The past year has been a trying one for American farmers. Many are caught in a cycle of debt as they invest massive sums in their operations simply to stay afloat. Others face rising land prices: In Montana, for example, a pandemic-induced influx of out-of-state residents is contributing to a booming housing market that is pricing-out would-be young farmers. Across the West Coast, farmers and farmworkers have also been feeling the effects of climate change as scorching temperatures destroy crops, wildfires burn land and homes, and smoky conditions contribute to unsafe working conditions.

Farmworkers at a strawberry farm in Oxnard, CA. Across the West Coast, farmers and farmworkers have also been feeling the effects of climate change as scorching temperatures destroy crops, wildfires burn land and homes, and smoky conditions contribute to unsafe working conditions. Photo courtesy of United Farm Workers.

Black farmers have faced additional setbacks. Though the year started off with a first-of-its-kind hearing by the US House Committee on Agriculture on the impact of systemic racism on Black farmers, and the allotment of $4 billion in debt relief under the American Rescue Plan to begin redressing decades of discrimination and system racism, things took a turn when White farmers sued to stop payments under the plan. The case is currently making its way through the courts.

But it’s not all bad news. Despite the steep barriers they face to entry, there’s also evidence of renewed interest in farming among young African Americans. Queer millennials, too, are returning to the land, connecting queer oppression to environmental concerns and challenging the conventional images of farmers.

Billionaire Spaceboys

There is no Planet B that we know of but our dreams of technofixes and colonizing other planets persist. To that end, billionaires Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk took super carbon-expensive joyrides into the space this year (an 11-minute space flight can create as much as 75 tons of emissions, more than the average person creates during their entire lifetime.) Space, it appears, in the new playground of the super rich. Musk’s SpaceX mission involved paying tourists spending three days in orbit. And earlier this month, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa became the first space tourist sent to the International Space Station by Russia in more than a decade.

Both Bezos and Musk have said they see their space adventures as part of a mission to address climate change and ecological decline. While Musk plans to take a “futuristic Noah’s Ark” to Mars, Bezos wants to offload carbon-heavy industries onto other planets. In order to preserve Earth “we must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy,” Bezos’ space company Blue Origi states. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic says its rockets are reusable and the company aims to “transform the current cost, safety and environmental impact of space-launch.”

But even the general public isn’t quite buying the billionaires’ protestations about Earth-care.

As Deepak Xavier, Oxfam International’s global head of Inequality Campaign, said: “We’ve now reached stratospheric inequality. Billionaires burning into space, away from a world of pandemic, climate change and starvation… This is human folly, not human achievement.”

Postscript: We would like to acknowledge the loss several conservation giants this year whose work helped us reach a greater understanding of the natural world and our connection to it:

Paul Crutzen, 87, the Dutch meteorologist and atmospheric chemist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the ozone hole and is known for popularizing the theory of “the Anthropocene.”

Edward O. Wilson, 92, the Alabama-born naturalist and writer, nicknamed “Ant Man” who help raise public awareness and understanding about biodiversity and conservation and was often called Charles Darwin’s “natural heir.”

Tom Lovejoy, 80, the American biologist who is said to have coined the term “biological diversity.” Lovejoy spent a lifetime on an ongoing project to save the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and educating the public and US politicians about the perils of climate change.

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