Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking back: Environmental news of 2013



The sun setting on another year - a good time for reflection

As 2013 draws to a close and we prepare to put another year behind us, now is a good time to reflect on some of the year’s big environmental headlines.  Whether the topic was energy, weather or pollution, the environmental news discourse of 2013 was underlined by one common theme: climate change.  There seemed to be a distinct shift in the tone of news compared with previous years; where instead of arguing about whether climate change is really happening (it is), this year our society began to move toward action, both in the form of citizen protests and government mandates. 

Milestones

In the month of March, 100% of the newly installed electricity generation in the US was solar energy.  That’s not just 100% of the newly installed renewable electricity generation… that’s 100% of newly installed electricity generation, period. Now that is a trend that needs to keep rising! The White House even got back on board with solar power, as 2013 marked the return of solar panels to the White House roof.

In May, we hit an unfortunate milestone as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached 400 parts per million (ppm) – the highest level in human history, and well above the “safe” level of 350ppm. This confirms that our planet is still on a dangerous climate change trajectory.  With increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, our collective global society is headed toward a challenging future on a changing planet. (See 400: A Sobering Milestone)

In June, the President made a groundbreaking speech in which he called for climate change action by mandating tougher emissions standards for coal-based power plants, calling for higher energy efficiency, and stressing the importance of moving to renewable energy.  Although some new regulations and goals have been set, most of us still sit with bated breath to see if the President's promises will be upheld as we wait for action on critical issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, domestic oil drilling, and natural gas fracking. If allowed to move forward, these endeavors would have tragically counterproductive consequences on our efforts to fight climate change.

In December, the Endangered Species Act marked its 40th year of protecting our planet’s most vulnerable and threatened species.  Check out the top five Endangered Species Act successes here.  

Activism

2013 will certainly be a memorable year in regard to environmental activism: 

Kicking things off in February, activists staged the largest climate rally to date, with more than 40,000 people descending on the National Mall in the “Forward on Climate” rally, urging President Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline and “move forward on climate".

And without fail, wherever President Obama traveled this year, he was greeted by groups of activists urging him to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast.  An environmental disaster waiting to happen, the pipeline is not only dangerous in terms of potential leaks or spills, but also because of the tremendous contributions it would make to climate change.  (See my Earth Day post for more information).

Around the world, people banded together in protest of oil and gas companies, highlighting the significant contributions to climate change and the environmental destruction caused by these industries.  Residents of the Pacific Islands stood together and declared “We are not drowning, we are fighting,” as their homelands become increasingly threatened by rising sea levels.  Back at home in the US, activists in the northeast staged protests to shut down the activities of natural gas companies who were “fracking” to extract shale gas in their towns, poisoning the environment and local water supplies in the process.  In the Pacific Northwest, amidst concerns of increased pollution and climate change, protestors railed against several proposed coal terminals that would ship US coal to overseas ports.  

2013 was also a big year for the movement to divest from fossil fuels.  Several universities, churches, cities (including Seattle!) vowed to pull their investments out of fossil fuel companies, conceding that it was ethically unacceptable to invest in an industry that is well on its way to destroying our planet as we know it. I would have to agree!

Weather

Weather events frequently made headlines this year, continuing to fulfill the “global weirding” predicted by scientists as our climate continues to change.  We witnessed a devastating typhoon in the Philippines, flooding in Europe, tornadoes in the US Midwest, and a record-shattering heat wave in China, just to name a few.  In January through November this year, there were thirty-six devastating weather events that came with a price tag in the billions and resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. 

The weather in Siberia is currently in the news as I write this: many residents are in disbelief at the unprecedented lack of snowfall and relatively warm temperatures they’re experiencing this winter, with one elderly local ominously remarking “I cannot believe my eyes… this doesn’t happen.” Check out the incredulous Siberian Times article here.

Grim Warnings

An early revision of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report was leaked this year, painting a sobering picture of our future if we continue with the fossil-fuel burning, carbon-spewing path we’re on. The report noted that although adaptation is possible to a certain degree, we can still expect significant casualties in the latter half of the century due to drought, flooding, decreased crop yields, heat waves and resource scarcity, all of which are fueled by climate change.  The IPCC report warned that we will not avoid the worst effects of climate change unless dramatic action is taken in the next few decades.

In the waning days of 2013, we have arrived at the tail end of the 346th consecutive month of above-average global temperatures. Will our society take steps in the coming year to break that streak? I suspect that 2014 will look much the same as 2013 on the environmental news front, but am hanging on to the hope that the new year will bring much-needed groundbreaking action to combat climate change, move toward 100% renewable energy, and protect our beautiful planet. Although the efforts of 2013 are a highly commendable start, we need to be mindful that in a life-or-death battle where our opponent is moving forward in leaps and bounds, we cannot afford to continue fighting by inches.  

Environmental news can be notoriously grim and depressing… for some lighter fare, be sure to check out Nature Nerd Wednesdays, with inspiring nature photography and nature writing.

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