The Biggest Environmental Stories of the Year
Wow. That was something else. Green has gone from "dead" to ubiquitous in just a few short years, and it peaked with the crazy buzz of 2007, which kept us busy as bees -- ironically without the actual bees (see No. 15). Here you'll find a selection of the year's top 15 stories, biased toward the U.S. and ranked by a process about as scientific as a James Inhofe press release.
15. Bees buzz off
This year, bees started disappearing, and nobody could figure out why. If so-called "colony collapse disorder" doesn't freak you out, you aren't paying attention: every fruit, nut, and vegetable you've ever eaten traces its origin back to a little bee's tentacles. Is it a coincidence that small-scale, organic-minded beekeepers had better luck? Food writer extraordinaire Michael Pollan doesn't think so. When he Pollanated the story for The New York Times (ha ha! we know!), he pointed out that the bee disappearance is just one manifestation of the increasing industrialization of the food system. There will be others. [Ominous music swells.]
14. Climate skeptics step on rakes
Believe it or not, the hardy band of climate skeptics -- those who flat-out don't believe anthropocentric climate change is real -- is still out there, showing all the resilience of cockroaches. Led by their congressional champion Jumpin' James Inhofe, they fell on their faces over and over again this year, hyping statistically insignificant changes in temperature records, flogging long-discredited quasi-scientific theories, uncritically accepting random non-peer-reviewed studies from "medical researchers," grossly misrepresenting the ruling of a British judge, falling for painfully obvious hoax studies, demanding debate and then dodging it when it's offered, and on and on (and on). What once seemed such a threat to the republic now plays more like a Three Stooges routine. (Psst, guys, the new denial is delay, arguing that climate policy is too expensive. Catch up with your ideological buddies!)
13. Lead-tainted toys scare parents
Lead poisoning can damage reproductive and nervous systems, affect blood pressure, and diminish learning ability. In short, it can eff your kids up something fierce. So parents freaked out when millions of lead-tainted playthings were recalled in the fall. Everybody pointed fingers at China. Consumer advocates and the U.S. House pointed fingers at the shoddy safety standards of the U.S. Nobody pointed fingers at parents determined to buy the cheapest possible plastic gee-gaws at Wal-Mart (oops, except us, just then).
12. Ethanol bubbles with contradictions
On one hand, the ethanol hype ramped up to dizzying new heights this year, driven by subsidy-hungry agribiz, agribiz-friendly Midwest legislators, and, lamentably, credulous environmentalists. It crescendoed with the passage of the energy bill in December, which mandates 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, much like a little boy might close his eyes, furrow his brow, and mandate a rocketship for Christmas. On the other hand, the ethanol backlash gained momentum, as new research and skeptical greens revealed the limitations and unintended consequences of feeding our carbon sinks to our cars. Expect this to be the cat fight of 2008.
11. Courts thwart Bush
While everyone else stood around checking their watches to see if Bush was gone yet, the U.S. judicial system took to smacking his administration about the head and shoulders, ruling against it on greenhouse gases, power-plant pollution controls, endangered fish, hydroelectric dams [pauses for breath], forest management, "Healthy Forests," and Navy sonar. It's almost like judges believed the Bush administration was doing illegal stuff. Have they told Congress?
10. CFLs are all the rage
Energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs were a big, bright spot in 2007. They've been stuffed onto store shelves, made cheaper, given away for free, and, of course, adopted in homes around the world in place of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. The CFL has even been proposed as the official light bulb of Texas.
9. Local food gets hip
Just when you thought you had a handle on the organic thing, along comes local food, the newest savior of our sinning food system. Is it the key to sustainability or just the latest hype? All we know is you can't swing a dead cat in Brooklyn without hitting a new bistro that flaunts its locally grown ingredients -- and likely as not you'll hit a locavore too.
8. The year of Gore
In February, Al Gore won an Oscar (well, his movie did, anyway). In March, he testified to Congress about climate change. In May, he released a new book that became a New York Times bestseller. In July, he helped organize the biggest benefit concert ever to raise awareness of climate change. In September, he won an Emmy. In October, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In November, he won another Emmy and joined an esteemed venture-capital firm to advise it on green investments. And in December, he got LEED Gold green-building certification for his Tennessee home and played a key role in reviving international climate talks in Bali. Whew!
7. Scientists speak loud and clear
Climate scientists stepped out of the ivory tower this year and into the thick of the debate over what to do about global warming. More than 200 top climate scientists from around the world signed a petition demanding swift and decisive action against global warming, warning that "there is no time to lose." Pioneering climate sci-guy James Hansen began formally petitioning world leaders to place a moratorium on new coal plants. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel-winning IPCC, stated forthrightly that "I am not going to rest easy until I have articulated in every possible forum the need to bring about major structural changes in economic growth and development." When temperamentally cautious nerdlinger scientists start panicking in public, well, maybe it's time for the rest of us to start paying attention.
6. Green is the new green
While the coal and nuclear industries spent the year petitioning the government for handouts, people with their own money on the line flocked to the hottest investment since the internet: green tech. Where 2006 saw $1.2 billion dumped into the clean-tech sector, 2007 saw $2.6 billion in the first nine months alone. And speaking of the internet, the brains in Silicon Valley often led the way, with Yahoo! going carbon neutral and Google upping the ante by vowing to directly invest in making renewable energy cheaper than coal. You can tell where a culture is going by watching what its best and brightest gravitate toward -- and friends, it ain't coal.
5. Weather gets wacky
Who got hit with the worst weather of 2007? It's a tough contest. The Southeast, with its crippling drought? Southern California, with its wildfires? The Northwest, with its floods? The plains states, with their ice storms? Wow, when it rains it pours. It's almost like there's something shifting in the background, making extreme weather events more frequent ...
4. Media goes green
Green was the Britney Spears of the media universe in 2007: ubiquitous, occasionally ridiculous. Reams of glossy magazines did "green issues." NPR launched an in-depth, ongoing climate series. CNN did a big green documentary. NBC did a green week. Fox went green (really!). Sundance launched a green channel and so did Discovery, which also bought the green blog Treehugger for an estimated $10 million. A gazillion other eco-focused blogs and websites -- "newbies," as we call them -- came online, all seemingly offering the same Top Ten Tips for Greening Your Life With No Effort or Guilt At All, We Promise. Even Grist, laboring away in this space since 1999, got its moment in the sun, with features in Time, Newsweek, and on the Today show. Hell, we even wrote a book. Thanks for catching up, y'all!
3. A movement gets moving
This year, allegedly dead environmentalism rose like a phoenix from the ashes -- broader, more diverse, more entrepreneurial, more savvy, more passionate. Step It Up inspired more than 1,500 citizen climate protests all across the U.S. The Power Shift conference brought together and riled up more than 5,500 youth climate activists. Leaders like Van Jones and Majora Carter brought poverty, jobs, and justice groups into the clean-energy fold. Business and religious constituencies joined in. A new coalition called the Climate Action Network was formed to synchronize NGO lobbying and another called 1Sky sought to aggregate hundreds of voices and ideas into one coherent platform of solutions. For the first time, if you squinted just right, you saw not just a special-interest group but a bona fide movement -- a generation awakened.
2. U.S. politicians wake up
All of the major Democratic presidential candidates have hatched bold plans for fighting climate change -- Hillary Clinton and John Edwards even appeared at the first-ever forum entirely focused on the issue. Republican presidential contenders Mike Huckabee and John McCain emphasize the need to cut planet-warming emissions, while Republican governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist of Florida are taking aggressive action to do just that. In the U.S. Senate, a climate bill sponsored by a Republican and an independent is moving forward, and Congress and President Bush just OK'd a law that will mandate higher efficiency in vehicles and buildings. The train is just barely nosing its way out of the station, but it appears that the American political class is finally on board.
1. A backlash against coal
Even as the power industry ramped up its lobbying efforts -- even deploying a squadron of Santas -- the tide began turning against coal. In February, the energy world was stunned by the massive leveraged buyout of TXU Corp. by a group of investors that pledged to scrap eight of 11 proposed coal-fired power plants in Texas. In October, the Kansas state government denied permits to two proposed coal plants, explicitly on the basis of their CO2 emissions -- a first. High-profile coal plants were also rejected in Florida, Washington, and at least eight other states. California told its utilities they can no longer sign or renew contracts for dirty coal power. Power giant PacifiCorp threw up its hands and said it was giving up on coal entirely. Guess word is spreading that coal is the enemy of the human race.