10 Most Important Environmental Stories of 2014

The calendar is about to flip over once again, meaning it’s time for the obligatory roundup of the most important environmental stories of the past year.

This list is mostly subjective—my own personal picks, filtered through my own lens. But I did reach out to a several dozen environmental activists and thinkers to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. I asked folks to give me their suggestions not necessarily for the “biggest” news as measured by headlines or page views or likes, but for the most important stories. That is, happenings likely to have an impact on ecosystems, politics, economy and culture beyond 2014.

Not surprisingly, climate change and energy once again dominate the list. But there was also some important news in wildlife conservation and loss, forest protection and politics. Without further ado, here’s my list of the top 10 most important environmentally related stories of 2014.

1. Obama Finally Acts on Power Plant Emissions

President Obama has been a reluctant warrior when it comes to the environment. In his first term he focused on dealing with the biggest financial meltdown and recession in a generation, and then passing his signature health care reform. Now, hamstrung by an oppositional Congress, he’s found that one of the issues on which he can use his executive authority to make real progress is climate change.

In June, Obama’s EPA announced draft rules to slash carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Once finalized in 2015, the rules are expected to slash power plant emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030 (from a 2005 baseline). Fossil fuel interests are attempting to challenge the rules in court, but the administration’s actions rest on solid legal footing. In a landmark case in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that “greenhouse gases fit within the [Clean Air Act’s] capacious definition of an air pollutant.” Here’s how Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune described to me the importance of the rules for a story I wrote for The Daily Beast:

“This is the kind of leadership that we’ve needed for a long time. And the impacts on clear energy will be huge. For the first time we are regulating carbon [dioxide] from arguably the largest source of carbon [dioxide] in the U.S. Unlike every single other pollutant, there has never been any limit on the amount of carbon pollution that can be dumped into the atmosphere. And [now] that will change. And that change is profound—it’s historic.”

2. U.S. and China Agree to Cut Emissions

“But what about China?” That line—usually delivered in the equivalent of a falsetto whine—has long been the fossil fuel industry’s centerpiece complaint about any U.S. actions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In short: U.S. actions don’t matter as long as other major polluters resist making emissions reductions. Here’s a classic bit of concern trolling from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a week after the power plant rules were announced: “The problem is that the climate is a global issue, not just a U.S. one. … To date, China, India and other major emitters have shown no interest in reducing their emissions appreciably.” Well, the chamber lost that talking point (and President Obama chalked up a major diplomatic accomplishment) when, in November, the U.S. and China announced a bi-lateral agreement to tackle climate change. The U.S. promised to cut emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025—a significant boost from Obama’s earlier goals to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020. (Again, these numbers are from a 2005 baseline). For their part, the Chinese pledged that their emissions would peak sometime around 2030, and also that they would generate at least 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by that year.

To be sure, there’s a lot of wiggle room in the non-binding pledge, which merely outlines what the two nations “intend” to do. Still, climate hawks agree that this is a Very Big Deal. Together, China and the U.S. account for about 45 percent of total greenhouse gas emission, so what these giant emitters intend matters. Their joint pledge—however squishy—keeps hope alive that climate negotiators meeting in Paris in December 2015 will be able to craft a global agreement to ratchet down emissions.

3. A Vibrant, Diverse U.S. Climate Movement Emerges

The turnout blew away organizers’ expectations. The constellation of environmental and social justice groups behind the Sept. 21 People’s Climate March in New York City were hoping to enlist at least 100,000 people to participate in their mass mobilization. At least three times as many people turned out for what observers agreed was the largest climate demonstration in history. Let me just say that again: the largest climate demonstration in history.

While the sheer size of the march was clearly important, the diversity of the participants was even more so. There’s a persistent and pernicious assumption among political observers that only white, affluent, college-educated people care about the environment and climate change. The New York demonstration (along with other marches in cities and towns worldwide) revealed what a lie that bit of snark is. Trade unions played a major role in organizing the march, and young people of color from environmental justice organizations led the massive column. In its ethnic, religious, and age diversity, the march looked like New York City. Global leaders couldn’t help but notice. In a speech just a few days later at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama alluded to the demonstration when he said: “Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.”

4. Oil Train’s a’ Comin

My 2013 list of top environmental stories included the horrific July 2013 oil train explosion in the Quebec town of Lac Megantic that killed 47 people. But it wasn’t until this year that reporters, environmental groups and community organizations caught up to the fact that shipping oil by rail is 1) a growing practice that 2) poses a real threat to public safety and 3) is frightfully under-regulated. The sudden burst of attention was due, in large part, to spate of oil-by-rail accidents in late 2013 and 2014. In November 2013 a train carrying 2.7 million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken fields exploded near Aliceville, Alabama. A month later, a train collision in Casselton, North Dakota spilled 400,000 gallons of petroleum. And then on April 30, 2014, an oil train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia, forcing the evacuation of 300 people. People began waking up to the fact that, as Adam Federman wrote in our Summer issue, “Each day million of gallons of highly combustible oil are moving through major metropolitan areas.”

National newspapers like The New York Times have jumped on the issue, as have environmental groups like Forest Ethics and Earthjustice, which just this month filed a lawsuit to ban the DOT-111 cars that most oil is shipped in. According to a story in Mother Jones, the DOT-111 is like “the Ford Pinto of rail cars.” Federal regulators are belatedly taking action. In July, the US Department of Transportation proposed new rules to govern shipping crude by rail; even Republicans applauded the move. But the issue is far from settled. With the U.S. shale oil boom continuing and pipelines stretched to capacity, oil-by-rail will continue to be a hot topic in 2015.

5. Election #Fail

In Case You Missed It, there was a big election this year. Going into November, environmentalists were cautiously optimistic that big spending byTom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action PAC and the League of Conservation Voters could help make climate change a wedge issue in several key contests. And so tens millions of dollars were spent in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Colorado, New Hampshire and Iowa to elect climate champions and/or defeat climate deniers. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go according to plan.Environmentalists came up with a 2-4 record in the major races in which they picked a fight and spent heavily. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, will now chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Ouch.

But all is not lost. The massive investments made to organize Millennial voters, especially, may pay off in the long run—or as early as 2016. The spending in 2014 might soften the ground for electoral contests to come. On the eve of the election, NextGen released a voter survey showing that younger voters overwhelmingly acknowledge that climate change is real, are dismissive of climate science deniers, and want to see federal action to stem greenhouse gas emissions. As veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said in a conference call explaining the poll results: “This issue matters for Millennials. It is defining issue, and leaders that deny or decline to act will pay a serious price for this politically.”

There were a few bright spots. Foremost among them, the vote by residents of Denton, Texas to ban fracking within the city limits. That’s right—Texas, the birthplace of hydraulic fracturing. According to environmental advocates, the vote in Denton shows that once people get to see fracking close and personal, they don’t much like it, and want to see the practice stopped. The oil and gas industry has filed a lawsuit to overturn the citizens’ vote; Big Green groups are rallying to Denton’s defense. Keep an eye on this one in 2015.

Though not election related, in another surprise win for environmentalists, on Dec. 17 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide ban on fracking following a two-year review that raised “red flags” about its risks to public health. The move is being seen as a major setback for the oil and gas industry.

6. Cargill Promises to Stop Contributing to Deforestation

Probably the most concrete progress to come out of the September UN Climate Summit was the New York Declaration on Forests, a pledge by multinational companies such as Asia Pulp and Paper and Unilever to cut worldwide deforestation in half by 2020 and to eliminate it completely by 2030. One of the signatories was Cargill, the privately held agri-business giant. As CEO Dave MacLennan said at the UN: “We understand that this sort of commitment cannot be limited to just select commodities or supply chains. That’s why Cargill will take practical measures to protect forests across our agricultural supply chains around the world.”

In a word, this is HUGE. From the pantanal of Brazil—where forests are razed for soy plantations and cattle ranches—to the ancient peat forests of Borneo—where trees are cut down to make plant massive palm monocrops—agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation worldwide. We are humans are, quite literally, eating up wild nature.

Of course, it’s one thing to make a pledge; it’s another thing to keep it. Environmental groups and other public interest watchdogs will have to stay on top of national governments and mega-corporations to ensure they keep their promises. Here’s hoping they do.

7. Wildlife Continues to Decline

It was probably the most depressing single bit of news of the year: In September, the World Wildlife Fund released a report concluding that in the 40 years between 1970 and 2010, the populations of birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish fell by 52 percent. “There is a lot of data in this report and it can seem very overwhelming and complex,” Jon Hoekstra, chief scientist at WWF, said in a statement releasing the findings. “What’s not complicated are the clear trends we’re seeing—39 percent of terrestrial wildlife gone, 39 percent of marine wildlife gone, 76 percent of freshwater wildlife gone—in the past 40 years.”

It’s no coincidence that even as wildlife populations have been cut in half, human numbers have nearly doubled; in 1970 there were 3.7 billion people on Earth, while today there are more than 7.2 billion. If you put those two trends on a graph, you get something resembling the muzzle of a blunderbuss—the prototype of the rifle. And blowing away the rest of nature is exactly what we’re doing.

The dire figures are a reminder that climate change isn’t the only threat to the planet’s health. Our sheer numbers and our relentless appetites are also chewing up the space for other critters, in the process diminishing the wonder and the beauty of Earth.

8. California Drought

This isn’t a parochial inclusion just because I happen to live in California. The drought in California—now in its fourth year, and not even close to being resolved by some recent rains—is big news since the Golden State growsnearly half of the U.S.’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and is also the number one dairy state. What happens to California agriculture affects the whole country.

Make no mistake, the drought is climate-related. Or, in the words of scientists at Stanford: “The atmospheric conditions associated with the unprecedented drought currently afflicting California are “very likely” linked to human-caused climate change.” The California drought is important news because it’s (yet another) glimpse of things to come in a hotter, drier American West. And it’s an indicator of how an intensely concentrated agriculture sector is susceptible to climate shocks.

Currently California produces 99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach and 69 percent of carrots, as Slate reports here. In a world beset by an unstable climate, perhaps this isn’t the smartest idea. We need to rethink our strategy of putting all of our eggs—or, as the case may be, almonds—in one basket.

9. California Bans Plastic Bags

OK, maybe this one is parochial—but for good reasons. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law making California the first state in the U.S. to ban plastic bags. The new law—which will go into effect in at large supermarkets in 2015 and corner stores in 2016—also puts in place a 10-cents-per-bag surcharge on paper bags or compostable bags offered to customers, creating an even greater incentive for shoppers to bring reusable bags to the store. (Customers buying groceries with food assistance won’t have to pay for the bags.)

Many grocery chains are in favor of the new law. “History was made today, and our environment and economy will be better for it,” Ronald Fong, president of the California Grocers Association, told CNN as the bill was signed. The plastics industry—not so much. Plastic bag makers have launched an effort to get an initiative on the state ballot to overturn the law, meaning this issue is still in flux.

Plastic bags—flimsy, ugly, prone to getting caught in the wind and fueling sophomoric musings—are like the mascot of an economy built on disposability. By banning them, California legislators took an important step toward stemming single-use plastics and made an important statement against wastefulness.

10. Wolves on the Move

Despite the disgusting predator-killing contests, and the continued hysterical fears, and the fact that they’ve been dropped from Endangered Species Act protection in many states, gray wolves continue to increase their range and find new places where they can thrive.

In July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that the famous wolf known as OR7 had sired three pups in southern Oregon after spending years roaming hundreds of miles looking for a mate. The revelation came just a month after the California Fish and Game Commission voted to add the wolves to the state’s endangered species list, meaning that if any members of OR7’s new pack cross the state line, they will enjoy additional protections.

Then, in November, a single gray wolf was spotted near the North Rim of Grand Canyon, in Arizona. DNA tests of its scat revealed the animal, which is wearing an inactive radio collar, came from the population of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. Meaning the animal had walked some 450 miles down the spine of the continent.

Amazing. Or, I would dare to say, inspiring. The new wolf pack in Oregon and the lone wolf at the Grand Canyon are proof of that wild nature can recover and rebound from past wounds if only we humans will allow it. Hope springs eternal.


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