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Friday, January 20, 2017

What we’ve gained and will fight to preserve

By Peter Dykstra for Environmental Health News

Image result for environmental progressThe eight years of the Obama presidency didn’t lack for environmental (or anti-environmental) gaffes and scams. But those years also gave us plenty of advances and signs of hope. Here are a quick twenty-five.

1) We'll always have Paris (maybe)

After conspicuously failing in Copenhagen in 2009, the world’s nations finally agreed to take concrete steps to reduce CO2 emissions at Paris in late 2015. Concerns abound that Donald Trump will seek to ignore or undermine the agreement.

2) Environmental justice is a thing again

Sometimes, what people do changes history. Sometimes, it’s what people do to other people. Environmental justice – or its less-noble-sounding alternate name, environmental racism – was re-ignited as an issue after years of benign good intentions or simple indifference. The struggling, mostly-minority city of Flint, Michigan, got a new, toxic water supply as a money-saving effort. City, state and federal officials concealed the dangers from Flint residents for more than a year.

And in North Dakota, Native Americans spearheaded a protest that blocked, for now, construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, braving rubber bullets, pepper spray, attack dogs and water cannons.

Flint residents responded, and the DAPL protesters stood their ground, with great dignity. Like civil rights protesters in the South more than a half-century ago, their ordeals can serve as powerful symbols for many struggles to come.


3) Journalism is dead. Long live journalism.

Reporters have written much about the demise of traditional journalism. Well, at least the ones who still have jobs have written much. But with newspapers slashing employees and TV news slashing IQ points, journalism websites have filled at least some of the void. Quality environment reporting lives on at nonprofits like the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News (see “Pulitzers,” below), and their for-profit counterparts like Mashable and Vox.com.

And not all old media have thrown in the green towel: The Washington Post and the Associated Press have boosted their reporting resources.

4) Climate deniers lose face-time (except for Congress and the White House)

Mainstream media finally noticed embarrassing disclosures about climate denial and its funding sources. With the unsurprising exception of Fox News, media appearances by the small circle of scientists and political operatives like Dr. Richard Lindzen and Marc Morano seem to be in steep decline. In 2013, the Los Angeles Times instituted a ban on publishing fact-free Letters to the Editor that promoted climate denial.

5) Eyes on the prize(s)

Not everyone pays attention to environmental reporting, but the Pulitzer Prize committee does. The beat has averaged better than a Pulitzer per year in the Obama Era – national or investigative reporting, public service, and nonfiction.

Topics included analysis of avalanches, a lethal mudslide, wildfires, the poisoning of a town, and fossil fuel scams.

6) Eyes in the skies

Too much planet, too little law enforcement. But satellites, drones, Google Earth and more are helping to monitor oil spills, illegal logging, mining, fishing, and more. A tiny nonprofit, SkyTruth, has been a pioneer, partnering with Google and environmental NGO’s to cyber-patrol the oceans in search of pirate fishing boats.

7) Chesapeake comeback (sort of)

Four decades of concerted effort to save America’s largest estuary are finally beginning to pay off. Industrial pollution and farm runoff had nearly killed off the Chesapeake Bay, but 2015 saw a slight drop in farm pollution and a rise in two iconic species, blue crabs and rockfish (striped bass). 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s report card gave the Bay its highest-ever grade, a C minus. At long last, the Bay stands a chance of getting accepted at a second-tier state college.

8) Turn your head and cough less often

The Centers for Disease Control reported a sharp drop in cigarette smoking from 2005 to 2015 – from 45.1 million Americans to 36.5 million. Accounting for the drop? A lot of smokers quit; a lot died prematurely. The American Cancer Society reported a 25 percent drop in overall cancer fatalities since 1991.

9) An outbreak of saltwater Yellowstones

More than a century ago, the U.S. went on a binge of protecting wild, scenic lands from commercial onslaught – Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and many more. The world’s nations have reprised this at sea in recent years, with giant swaths of ocean set off limits for most types of commercial activity – fishing, minerals exploration and more. Smaller protected areas popped up along coastlines, and even in the Great Lakes. And 2016 saw a crown jewel established – a multinational protected area in Antarctica’s Ross Sea.

10) Cities take on sustainability….

It makes sense when you hear that a metropolis like Boston or San Francisco is pursuing sustainability plans. But Vegas, baby, Vegas. Well, the Las Vegas City Government, at least. The city announced that a new solar deal enables everything from government buildings, streetlights, and all municipal functions to be 100 percent powered by renewables. The fountains and bright lights of the Strip still remain powered largely by natural gas and unthinkable amounts of hype. But what happened in Las Vegas City Hall won’t stay in Las Vegas City Hall. 

11) ….And so do corporations, sort of

If Las Vegas is an easy target due to its own excesses and stereotypes, its corporate counterpart may be Wal-Mart. Rob Walton, ex-chair and current heir, says the retail giant has saved more than a billion dollars in energy costs by going in whole-hog on solar panels on its mega-stores’ roofs. But wait!! There’s more!! The Solar Energy Industries Association announced a few months ago that Wal-Mart is no longer the US business with the biggest installed solar capacity. They’ve been leapfrogged by archrival Target.

12) Solar, wind begin to plummet to low-low prices

Since at least the 1960’s, we’ve heard sunny predictions that renewable energy was “just around the corner.” In the Obama Era, we finally made it to the corner.

Projections by Bloomberg New Energy Finance have worldwide costs for solar dipping beneath coal in 10 years. And a report in the journal Nature Energy says windpower is not far behind, dropping by 41 percent by the year 2050.

13) A sunny windfall of new jobs

The nonprofit Solar Foundation estimated that solar energy employed 209,000 Americans in 2015. That total is expected to exceed a quarter million when the numbers for 2016 are in.

The American Wind Energy Association says there were 88,000 windpower jobs in the U.S. in 2016. As oil and gas prices slumped due to oversupply, that industry shed 142,000 of its 538,000 jobs from October 2014 to May 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

14) Coal collapse

Buffeted by criticism over climate change, worker safety, and environmental damage, the domestic coal industry was in freefall. Those critics may be far less responsible for the decline than mechanization, and coal’s inability to compete with low natural gas prices. The Bureau of Labor Statistics listed 178,300 coal industry jobs in 1985, and 56,600 jobs in 2016.

15) Flatlining Earth theory

For three straight years starting in 2014, world greenhouse gas emissions stayed almost flat. A report released at November’s United Nations climate negotiations in Marrakesh cited declines in coal consumption in China and U.S. as major factors.

16) China wakes up on pollution

China’s booming economy has come largely at the cost of choking smog, tainted rivers, mounds of e-waste, and other nightmares. The world has grown accustomed to headlines about chewable air in Beijing or Shanghai – the cities where international reporters tend to be based. 

But when China’s Environment Ministry issued a list of the 10 smoggiest cities a few years ago, neither Beijing or Shanghai made the cut. China is combatting its smog plague with crackdowns on dirty factories and vehicles and investing hundreds of billions in renewable energy. Last week, state-run media reported the creation of a special pollution police force in Beijing.

17) China wakes up on extinction

That booming economy accelerated demand for traditional Chinese wildlife products like shark fin soup, rhino horn, and ivory. Pro basketball legend and national hero Yao Ming fronted a wildly successful campaign to reject finning sharks for soup, and in late December, China announced it would phase out all elephant ivory processing and trade.

18) Manufacturers seeing green in green chemistry

The concept of green chemistry is a quarter century old, but industry insiders say its time has come. If it’s not enough that ridding society of things like useless antibacterials and toxic flame retardants and endocrine disruptors like BPA is an environmental health sacred cow, it’s poised to become a cash cow as well. An industry study sees the green chemistry market growing from $15 billion worldwide in 2015 to $100 billion in 2020.

19) Fossil fuel divestment exceeds expectations

They’re starting to use the “T” word when it comes to the campaign to persuade investors to ditch fossil fuel holdings. What started as a Campus Crusade for Climate in 2011 now claims nearly 800 universities, pension and investment funds, banks, insurers, and religious organizations. “Investors controlling more than $5 trillion in assets have committed to dropping some or all fossil fuel stocks from their portfolios,” reported the New York Times in December.

20) EVs grow

If you went to last week’s influential 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, chances are most of the leggy models you saw there were draped over electric vehicles. All-time EV sales have topped 500,000, with more than a quarter of that number happening in the final months of 2016, and industry observers say EV sales are poised to explode.

21) Fossil felons?

In March 2016, Attorneys General for 20 states launched a probe of ExxonMobil’s apparent efforts to stifle climate science, including that of its own scientists. Exxon launched a fierce counterattack, abetted by House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith.

And former Massey Energy boss Don Blankenship became the first coal CEO to be convicted for mine safety violations in the deaths of 29 West Virginia miners in a 2010 accident.

22. National Monuments

With a week left to go in his presidency, Obama designated five more national monuments.  His 35 national monument designations make Obama the most prolific user of the 1906 Antiquities Act.  Some honored human rights, but others preserved breathtaking wilderness areas, including the Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. ”There is no place like it,” opined the Washington Post, inviting Obama’s critics to take a deep breath.

23) Oil drilling ban in Arctic, Atlantic

On his way out the door, President Obama locked in a multi-year ban on oil and gas drilling off the Arctic and Atlantic coasts. Legal experts say the Trump Administration would have a hard time undoing the ban. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed suit with a freeze on new leases in the Canadian Arctic.

24) Climate scientists fight back

After years of threats, derision, harassment, and allegations that somehow being a climate scientist is the road to Big Bucks, they’re starting to fight back. Andrew Weaver won damages in a defamation case against Canada’s National Post in 2015.

U.S. scientist Michael Mann’s high-stakes defamation suit continues to slog through the courts.
25) Endangered no more

More species or subspecies were removed from the Endangered list during the Obama years than all other administrations combined. The Steller sea lion, Virginia northern flying squirrel, and local populations of humpback whales, brown pelicans, and gray wolves headline the list.

And to end this upbeat list on a downer, a possible addition to the endangered species list in coming years is the Endangered Species Act.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

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