Signs of hope
Ten ways America moved forward on climate change during the Obama administration
The 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 President Trump will seek to ignore or undermine the agreement, however.
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 reignited as an issue after years of benign good intentions or simple indifference. The struggling, mostly minority city of Flint, Mich., 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, 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 NGOs 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 and Prevention 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—Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and many more—from commercial onslaught. 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 city government of Las Vegas 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.