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The Decade in the Environment The Decade in the Environment

The Decade in the Environment

by Ben Jervey
December 23, 2009

Ten years of climate change, local food, and tipping points.This decade will be remembered, first and foremost, as the time we finally came around to understanding climate change-but failed to do anything about it. Such is the environmental paradox of the aughts. It was the decade during which we started as a society to take these grave environmental threats and challenges seriously. Yet during these same ten years, the threats and challenges hit overdrive, various tipping points were blown by, and warning signals were largely ignored. Will our newfound engagement be enough? Or have we come around too late?The decade saw a handful of uplifting stories of conservation and innovation and education, the mainstreaming of "green" as a lifestyle choice, commodity, and marketing gimmick, and a helluva lot of really scary stories of systems-natural, social, and political-failing. If there's solace to be taken, it's in the fact that nature has a way of healing, and there's no question that we as a species have started to understand our essential role in the cure. As a climate and environmental policy professor told me not long ago, "there's no good reason to be optimistic, but there's plenty of cause for hope."2000A flood of toxic coal ash slurry 25-times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill coats Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The newly seated Bush administration helps cover-up Massey Energy negligence. Eight years of fossil-fueled White House decisions ensue.2001The Toyota Prius hits global markets, ushering in a new era of smug automotive fuel efficiency.Whole Foods opens in Manhattan, giving organic food a cache it hadn't known since the 1970s.Seven days after the twin towers fall, the EPA tells New Yorkers that downtown air is "safe." It is not. Official reports downplayed the danger of the dust's pH-levels, worsening still the impacts of the terror attacks.2002The Bush administration opens a stunning direct assault on laws that protect America's water, air, and natural treasures. Decades worth of hard-fought environmental legislation is lost: clean air protections are relaxed, toxic waste clean-ups are abandoned, oil and gas is drilled for in National Parks, and protections on roadless areas in national forests are revoked.Ten years after the first Earth Summit in Rio, another convenes in Johannesburg, focused on sustainable development. The United States doesn't send a delegation.2003The modern world's first "water war" is sparked in Darfur. Since then, more than 300,000 Sudanese have been killed and nearly 3 million have fled their homes in the conflict, with lack of fresh water adding to the misery of refugees.The Three Gorges Dam begins filling the world's largest reservoir on China's Yangtze River. When fully operational, the controversial dam will provide 22,500 megawatts of carbon-free electricity (enough to power three percent of China's population), but not before submerging treasured cultural, archeological, and natural sites and displacing some 1.24 million people.The Apollo Alliance, which The New Yorker called "an influential umbrella coalition of Greens and trade unionists," is formed, reframing the climate challenge as a great opportunity for economic gain, job creation, and energy independence.A massive heat wave strikes Europe in August, killing more than 37,000 people.2004Wangari Maathai wins the Nobel Peace Prize for her work mobilizing women to plant trees in Africa with the Greenbelt Movement; it's the first time the award is given for environmental work. The Nobel Committee urges, "Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment."The FBI kicks-off Operation Backfire to combat "eco-terrorism," investigating destructive acts by the Earth and Animal Liberation Fronts.Treehugger.com is launched in June with the outspoken intention of pushing environmentalism into the mainstream. "Green is the new black," we're told.Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute declare environmentalism "dead" (pdf). Who to believe?2005Esprit founder Doug Thompkins grants 700,000 acres of temperate rain forest-stretching from the Argentine border to the Pacific-to Chile, and Pumalin Park becomes one of the largest protected areas in the world, and a model of conservation philanthropy.The Kyoto Protocol enters into force, seven years after being adopted. The United States, responsible for 36 percent of emissions covered by the Protocol, never ratifies it.Hurricane Katrina ravages the Gulf Coast and devastates New Orleans. No, climate change didn't "cause" Katrina, but warmer Gulf waters strengthened it, and it starkly showed the risks of a hotter world, even in America, while introducing to millions the concept of an "environmental refugee."Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels convinces a bunch of colleagues to sign the "Mayors Climate Protection Agreement," a pledge to cut carbon emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Four years later, 86 million Americans live in the 1000 cities committed to this goal, one that's far more ambitious than the current U.S. commitments on the table in Copenhagen.Bobby Kennedy Jr. attacks the Cape Wind project in the editorial pages of The New York Times, and the public gets a good introduction to NIMBYism.2006An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary about Al Gore's slideshow about climate change, becomes an unlikely box office sensation. Climate literacy spikes.The IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species reveals a Sixth Great Extinction already underway. Thirty-six percent of species studied are "threatened" with extinction.Honeybees mysteriously disappear. Nobody can figure out why.Michael Pollan writes a best-selling book about food and makes a lot of people think twice about their next trip to the supermarket or the drive-through.2007The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report drops, scares the heck out of everyone, and wins its authors the Nobel Peace Prize.In April, hundreds of thousands of Americans "Step It Up" in 1,400 events, calling on presidential candidates to commit to a strong greenhouse gas reduction target. It works-Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and McCain each pledge to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050."Locavore" and "green collar job" enter the common parlance. The former is named Oxford's Word of the Year. (Proving, after "Climate neutral" won the prize in 2006, that the Oxfords are a bunch of hippies.)The fabled Northwest Passage thaws to a navigable, ice-free state for the first time in recorded history. Shipping magnates consider the new shortcut between Europe and Asia.United States carbon dioxide emissions peak. (I hope.)Solar electricity becomes cheaper than coal, as multiple companies break the $1 per watt barrier.President Bush admits that anthropogenic global warming is real (16 years after his father pledged to "fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect").Two voyages explore the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, calling global attention to the mess.2008China bans plastic bags, immediately saves 37 million barrels worth of oil a year.Whitebark pine beetles, migrating with rising temps to higher elevations, reek havoc on vast forests throughout the Northern Rockies, turning even the most grizzled old conservative ranchers into climate converts.An animated film paints a grim picture of our sedentary future, one where fat humans float around space while robots are left to clean up a trashed Earth.2009Shocking just about everybody, the Bush administration caps off eight years of environmental tragedy with the the largest marine conservation effort in history, designating three remote Pacific island areas as national monuments. In all, some 195,280 square miles are protected from energy extraction and commercial fishing.The massive Wilkins Ice Shelf-larger than Connecticut-in West Antarctica collapses.Australia's Murray-Darling watershed enters its twelfth abnormally dry year. Many believe it's no longer a lasting drought, but the start of desertification.A deadly swine flu pandemic sweeps the planet. The H1N1 strain is linked to factory hog farms in Mexico.China sees the United States's $100 billion in "green" stimulus spending and raises it a half a trillion, pledging well over $600 billion for renewable energy, clean tech, efficiency, and the like.The E.P.A.-finally-finds greenhouse gasses to be a threat to public health. Administration chief Lisa Jackson says that this endangerment finding will remembered as "the day the U.S. government recognized carbon dioxide as a pollutant."World leaders gather in Copenhagen to hammer out a treaty to save the world from catastrophic climate change. TBD...A very special thanks to the Vermont Law School Delegation to Copenhagen-in particular, Teresa Clemmer, Michael Cote, Dustin Brucher, Jessica Scott, Lillian Kortlandt, Ashley Santner, Anna Ellis, and Laurie Beyranevand--for an invaluable brainstorming session.
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