2011 was a big year for the environment, in some good ways and some bad ways. Here’s a quick run-down of the top 10 stories of the year, in my opinion:
1. Tremendously high levels of carbon emissions continue to warm Earth. Despite efforts to switch to clean energy, increase energy efficiency, and use more sustainable transportation, rapid economic growth in China and other countries coupled with weak efforts to cut staggering per capita emissions in world-leading countries like the U.S. leave us in a worse off situation year after year. The costs of taking climate action necessary to avert tremendous societal catastrophe rise as we delay strong climate action.
2. Activists come alive — shut down Keystone XL pipeline; join in Occupy movement. With the increasing urgency of the matter, and governmental and citizen inaction, those most informed on the matter are turning to their last resort, strong direct action. The biggest green activism story of the year was clearly the blocking of a shoe-in climate disaster, the Keystone XL oil pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico coast. Over 1,000 activists were arrested in front of the White House over the course of weeks in the summer for protesting the pipeline, and over 10,000 circled the White House in November to oppose “the fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” This green activist spirit also made up a significant part of the Occupy protests happening around the U.S. and around the world. Continuing on with this direct action movement, and making it stronger and stronger, seems to be our last resort for address climate change now, before we are out of time.
3. Extreme weather slams the world. 2011 included record wet and dry extremes in the U.S., with the cost of U.S. floods hitting $10 billion and Texas getting hit the hardest, overall, with a completely debilitating drought and the hottest U.S. summer on record. Thankfully, more and more Americans see the connection between extreme weather and global warming, the majority of Americans do. However, too many of our (Republican) Congresspeople still ignore the issue, and even look to take money from clean energy programs that prevent future disasters to fund unprecedented disaster-relief budgets.
4. Food prices rising. As a natural consequence of global warming and resulting extreme weather, the price of food has been rising. This year saw a pretty tremendous increase in prices of some hard-hit foods, and several stories of crops threatened by global warming. Joe Romm had a great post detailing this matter and asserting that food insecurity was perhaps the #1 climate story of 2011. A piggy-backed on that with a short post here on Planetsave that included Joe’s introduction, followed by a repost on sister site Eat Drink Better where I added in the top 11 food price and food security (or insecurity) stories of 2011.
5. Clean energy — wind and solar — booming as costs drop (+ clean energy jobs galore!). Wind and solar energy continue to grow in leaps and bounds in the U.S. and around the world, and costs have been dropping at tremendous rates. The U.S. solar energy industry now employs over 100,000 people. Wind energy is the cheapest energy option in many places. For more on big news from these industries and others, check out: Top 10 Clean Tech Stories of 2011.
6. Lack of U.S. energy policy and greatest assault on environmental protections in history of U.S. Congress.
The current U.S. Congress, filled with science-denying and fossil-fuel-funded Republicans, is apparently the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. As reported a couple weeks ago, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against the environment approximately 200 times in 2011. Clean energy and pollution-reducing measures are attacked non-stop by the Republican party despite the fact that these things create jobs, improve our health, fight climate change, and are hugely supported by the U.S. public. Is there any wonder the Congressional approval rating has hit record lows this year?
7. Durban — success!.. sort of. The 17th international climate conference hosted by the United Nations took place in Durban, South Africa this month. It included some tremendous wins, but the limitations of what was achieved are tremendous and concerning as well. Here are two good summaries of what happened in Durban this year:
- Climate Change Agreement in Durban — What Happened? What to Know?
- The Durban Call for Action: Consumers, Corporations and Cities need to provide the speed and certainty of climate protection that politics will not deliver
8. Biking continues to become more popular, bike-sharing programs boom. Bicycling seems to have grown in popularity a lot in 2011, as more and more people find that bicycling for transportation is a healthy, fun, cool, cheap, fast, clean thing to do. It’s common sense really — bicycling is one of the most popular recreational activities in the world, why shouldn’t it be used for transportation more as well?! Bicycle sharing programs have been growing a lot as well, and are generally much more successful than anyone anticipates before they go live. From DC to Boston to China to the city I know live in, Wroclaw (Poland), bike sharing programs are popping up and growing fast. I’m sure we’ll see more of that in 2012!!
9. Poaching takes down two rhino species (now extinct) and continues assault on numerous critically endangered and threatened species. Mongabay sums up the rhino news of the year perfectly:
This year confirmed the extinction of two rhinos: the Vietnamese rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus) and the western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes). The last Vietnamese rhinoceros, a subspecies of the Javan rhino, was killed by poachers in 2009, while the last western black rhinos, a subspecies of the black rhino, were killed off in Cameroon. In addition to these tragic losses, South Africa, which is the current epicenter for rhino poaching, hit a new record this year for the number of rhinos killed by poachers: by the end of the yearly it’s likely that around 460 rhinos will have been killed, a nearly 50 percent rise in rhino killing from the previous record set last year. The IUCN Red List categorizes three of the five species of rhino—the black, the Javan, and the Sumatran—as Critically Endangered. Rhinos are being decimated by violent and organized criminals for the black market medicine trade, although numerous studies have shown no medicinal value in rhino horn beyond the placebo effect.
Rhishja Larson, a world-leading rhino expert and activist, writes weekly round-up posts for us here on Planetsave — check out some of her posts if you want to learn more and take action to protect these species! Aside from rhinos, numerous other endangered species continue to be poached due to the incorrect belief that their body parts have special medicinal values.
10. Fukushima. A repost from my clean tech 2011 top 10 on CleanTechnica: Yeah, this should have been high up. While the nuclear industry really can’t compete with cheaper energy options anyway (without tremendous government subsidies), the Fukushima disasters that went on for months (and, truthfully, are still ongoing) have effectively put the nail in the coffin of the so-called ‘nuclear renaissance’. The public backlash against nuclear has been strong and worldwide, with countries such as Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium decided to ditch nuclear 100%, and even the nuclear-leading French “thumbing their nose” at the technology.
What will 2012 bring? Hopefully, more of the good news and less of the bad news. But I guess that is mostly dependent on you and me and others who care about clean air, clean water, a livable climate, the preservation of species/biodiversity, and a safe environment.
Image Credits: Global Warming Egg via AZRainman; Climate Activists via Elvert Barnes; Anonymous Activist via shutterstock; Flooded Cars via US Army Korea — IMCOM; Wind turbines via shutterstock; Congress approval rating chart by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO); Oxfam “Hungry for Climate Action” table in Durban via Oxfam International; Wroclaw bike-sharing station by me (Zachary Shahan); Cute baby rhino via shutterstock; UK nuclear activists via Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament