The Most Important Environmental Stories of 2019
Here are the issues that shaped the past year—and will ripple out in 2020
The winter solstice is past and the new year is right around the corner. That must mean it’s time for my annual roundup of the most important environmental stories of the past year. While some of these topics got a ton of attention (like Greta Thunberg and the fires in the Amazon), others didn’t get half as much airtime and ink as they deserved (like the hijacking of Oregon’s proposed climate law and the Trump administration’s losing streak). Without further ado, here’s my list of the big, the bad, and the good from 2019.
Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club
The spectacle was truly world-historical: On Friday, September 20, protests swept the planet as millions of people filled the streets to demand that global leaders take bold action to address the climate crisis. The turnout far exceeded organizers’ expectations. In Germany alone, some 1.4 million people marched to call for climate action, while another 300,000 people packed the avenues of Australia and a quarter million jammed Lower Manhattan. A week later, similarly massive protests rocked Italy, Canada, and New Zealand. Altogether, at least 7 million people worldwide participated in the climate strikes, according to 350.org.
The scale and scope of the climate strikes—and, above all, their militant tone—marked an important turning point for global climate advocacy. There is now, unmistakably, an international civil society movement demanding that corporate and political leaders adopt policies and practices that are aligned with the increasingly dire warnings coming from scientists. As the climate strikers made clear, lofty promises and incremental progress are no longer sufficient to halt rising temperatures and increasingly acidic oceans; only a sweeping, global campaign to cut civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels will do. The youth-led and youth-inspired climate strikes also revealed how young people are increasingly spearheading the climate movement; for them, the climate crisis isn’t some kind of far-off threat but rather a clear and present danger.
The generational divide between millennials and Generation Zers (who have inherited this crisis) and Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (who have recklessly fueled the problem or blithely ignored it) will likely form the central pivot of climate politics for years to come. As one 13-year-old climate striker told The Washington Post, “I am here because we want adults to act. It is time to do something.”
2. Greta Thunberg
Photo by AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
A year and a half ago, Greta Thunberg was an unknown teenage climate activist staging a solitary protest on the steps of the Swedish Parliament. Today, she’s Time magazine’s Person of the Year—the youngest person to ever receive that recognition. There’s no question that Thunberg’s meteoric rise was assisted by her relative privilege; that, in the words of the Time editors, she “stands on the shoulders” of others who came before her; and that her “Fridays for the Future” movement is just one bright star in a constellation of new youth climate activism that includes groups like the Sunrise Movement and Zero Hour. And there’s little doubt that the attention and accolades showered on Thunberg are well-deserved.
She is a sort of political savant, with an uncommon talent for harnessing popular sentiment and forcing it into the middle of the political agenda. She has a leader’s knack for theater: Her bold decision to travel to the UN climate talks in New York was like something out of a storybook—a young woman, sailing across a sea in a storm, to speak truth to power. She possesses the partisan warrior’s skill of leaving her opponents discombobulated, as Donald Trump’s grotesque attacks against her prove. Most importantly, she demonstrates a preternatural skill (which Thunberg attributes to her Asperger’s syndrome) to speak with a vocabulary of morality that is equal parts outrage and hope, and which has inspired and activated people around the world. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” Thunberg thundered during the UN Climate Action Summit in September. “And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
The best, most trusted, and most effective leaders succeed by channeling the emotions of others. When Thunberg says that the climate crisis can’t “be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions,” she is conveying the voice of a generation—one that promises to just get louder and louder.
3. UN Warns of Mass Extinctions
Photo by AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara
During the past decade, as rising temperatures and extreme weather events have become impossible to ignore, the climate crisis has come to overshadow and subsume almost all other environmental issues. People often talk about the global environmental crisis and global climate change as if they are synonymous. This (totally understandable) conflation misses an important fact: There is another, equally worrisome ecological threat upon us—the loss of biodiversity and the mounting danger of a mass extinction.
In May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services—a UN science panel that includes 132 nations—released a terrifying report warning that 1 million plant and animal species are on the edge of extinction, more than at any time in human history. The report, which was prepared by more than 450 scientists, found that 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine species, and one-third of corals are at risk of extinction. At least 10 percent of insect species are in jeopardy of disappearing. Altogether, the biomass of wild animals has fallen by 82 percent since prehistoric times. The report authors cautioned that the decline in biodiversity also represents a threat to humanity and is eroding “the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.”
While the scientists did note that rising temperatures are exacerbating the stresses on wildlife populations, the report made clear that the number one threat to biodiversity is humanity’s destruction of natural habitats and overconsumption of natural resources. Three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial surface has been significantly altered by civilization. The largest single footprint is agriculture: “More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production,” the panel reported. Human activities have disturbed half of global marine environments, and about 60 percent of fisheries are being “maximally sustainably fished”—that is, being pushed to the edge of collapse. More than 80 percent of the coastal wetlands that existed in 1700 have been drained and destroyed.
The human pressures on the planet go well beyond our gross habit of using the atmosphere as an open sewer for greenhouse gas emissions. Even if scientists were to tomorrow discover an endless source of clean renewable energy like, say, cold fusion, civilization would still be consuming Earth at an unsustainable rate.
All of which presents the global environmental movement with a challenge for 2020 and beyond. Somehow, we must convince people not just to curb our appetite for fossil fuel energy, but also to reduce our other appetites (for meat, for minerals, for space) and declare an armistice in our war against Earth.
4. The Green New Deal
Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/AP Images
It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, the Green New Deal was little more than a half-baked policy wish list floated by a newly elected US representative who hadn’t, at that point, yet served a day in Congress. Fast forward to today, and the Green New Deal is unquestionably the foundational ideal of any serious discussion about how the United States can take meaningful action to address global climate change. It has become the very axis of US climate politics.
Mind you, the Green New Deal (at least in its most formal incarnation) remains little more than a vision. In February, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, both Democrats, unveiled a resolution that merely outlines the basic policy framework for how to tackle US greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring that any retooling of the US economy will benefit a majority of Americans. We're a very long way from putting laws on the books. Yet the relative vagueness and broadness of the Green New Deal may be its greatest strength at this point. The Green New Deal means different things to different people, and it’s exactly this capaciousness that gives the idea such potency. The Green New Deal is a kind of political Rorschach blot that allows people to project onto it their hopes (and, in some cases, their fears) about what a sustainable future might look like.
Even though the Green New Deal is, at this stage, still open to multiple interpretations and various forms, any Green New Deal conversation at least begins with this insight: Climate change is not simply an “environmental issue” but rather a challenge that requires, in the words of the AOC-Markey resolution, a “national mobilization” to reform and improve many sectors of the American economy and American society. The Green New Deal has succeeded in—at long last!—breaking down the barriers that for decades have segregated the environmental movement from other arms of the broader progressive movement. The proposal imagines not just achieving “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers” but also the following (and this is a short list): working with farmers and ranchers to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; guaranteeing a "family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security" for every American; “high-quality medical care” for every American; and restoring "threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects.”
The Green New Deal has succeeded in making clear that climate change is not just a threat but also an opportunity to create an economy that is equitable as well as sustainable. It has completely redefined the discussion about climate policy in the United States.
5. Climate Change Becomes an Election Issue
Photo by AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Years from now (when the Green New Deal is the law of the land), it’s possible that 2019 will be remembered as the year when climate change finally became a potent issue in American electoral politics.
For too long, voters have ranked climate and the environment near the bottom of their list of top priorities. That’s not true anymore—at least among Democratic voters. An April poll by CNN found that 82 percent of registered Democrats cited climate change as a top priority they want a presidential candidate to focus on, beating out every other issue. In September, a CBS survey showed climate change to be the second-most important issue among Democratic voters, right behind health care. Between 2015 and 2019, the percentage of Democrats who said that climate should be a top priority for Congress and the president has increased from 46 percent to 67 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Progressive and liberal voters’ newfound intensity about climate and the environment is shaping the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. While the climate-focused candidacy of Governor Jay Inslee was short-lived, every major Democratic presidential candidate has issued some kind of climate change plan—many of them in striking detail and impressive ambition. And although the Sunrise Movement–led campaign to have an official presidential debate centered on climate was unsuccessful, the effort kept the issue on political reporters’ radar and led to two separate town hall forums about climate: A seven-hour marathon hosted by CNN and an MSNBC event that occurred during the climate strikes. Those forums—along with the occasional climate-related question at the official debates—has forced the candidates to articulate their visions for how to tackle the climate crisis.
It’s important to note that Democratic voters’ awakened passion hasn’t been matched by a similar shift among Republicans; as the Pew survey shows, there remains a massive partisan divide when it comes to climate change. But the needle is moving: Two-thirds of Americans now say the issue of global warming is important to them. Which means that climate and the environment is guaranteed to be a top-tier topic as the general election contest begins later next year and a key point of difference between the eventual Democratic candidate and President Trump.
When it comes to electoral politics, climate change is here to stay.
6. Trump Is a Loser
Photo by AP Photo/Evan Vucci
If you had to pick one adjective to describe the Trump administration’s attacks against the environment, it might be relentless. If you had to pick a second adjective, ineffectual would be a smart choice. Because here’s the thing: Many of Trump’s most dangerous environmental policies have been blocked by some combination of federal court rulings, grassroots opposition, and corporate hesitation to back the president’s radical and retrograde agenda.
Nearly three years after coming to power, Trump’s promise to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline across the Canada-US border remains unfulfilled. His attempts to nullify California’s tailpipe standards for cars and trucks has split the auto industry, as four major automakers—Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW—have cut a deal with California to abide by the Golden State’s stronger rules. Coal company bankruptcies continue to pile up, and coal-fired power plants keep closing at a brisk pace, despite Trump’s big promises (one might say disingenuous and hollow promises) to revive the dying industry. Trump’s hope of opening up vast new sections of the US coast to offshore oil and gas drilling is dead in the water. And 2019 has come and gone without any seismic testing or drilling leases occurring in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; 14 global banks, including Goldman Sachs, have announced that they will not finance oil exploration and extraction in the Arctic region.
The Trump administration’s scorched-earth agenda has faired particularly badly in court. Thanks in large part to the administration’s own sloppiness in trying to revise Obama-era environmental and public health rules, the Trump government has been on a losing streak. The watchdog group Earthjustice—which often represents the Sierra Club and other organizations in court—has filed more than a hundred legal challenges against Trump environmental policies; so far, 37 of those lawsuits have been decided, and Earthjustice and its clients have won 32 of them, or 86 percent. These victories have, among other things, protected Yellowstone-area grizzly bears from being hunted; kept the Chemical Disaster Rule in place; paused new coal mine leasing on public lands; halted a proposed copper mine in Arizona; and maintained methane emissions rules on BLM lands.
2019 showed that resistance is working.
7. Gas Becomes the New Battle Front
Photo by Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP
Some good news: In 2019, the US coal industry continued its descent into obsolescence. According to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, 2019 was the second-biggest year for coal plant retirements as massive facilities like the Rockport plant in Indiana and the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona shuttered. Coal now supplies only a quarter of US electricity, down from 50 percent a decade ago; in April, for the first time ever, renewables generated more power than coal.
Now, some bad news: Even though renewable energy (especially onshore wind) is more cost-competitive than ever, the natural gas industry is expanding at an unprecedented rate to fill the hole left by coal’s demise—and in the process threatening to erase the potential greenhouse gas reductions from coal’s sunset.
Due to the fracking boom, the United States has a glut of cheap gas, which is incentivizing plans for a massive build-out of gas-fired power plants, pipelines, and export facilities. According to reports from the Rocky Mountain Institute, the fossil fuel industry and its Wall Street backers are eyeing an estimated $90 billion of planned investment in new gas power plants and another $30 billion of planned investment in proposed gas pipelines. Fossil fuel companies are also pushing for new liquified natural gas export facilities to lock in the United States’ trajectory toward being a top gas exporter.
While gas (a.k.a. methane) is cleaner than coal when burned for energy, many environmentalists point out that the fracking boom comes with other environmental risks like habitat fragmentation, regional ozone pollution, and groundwater contamination. An even bigger concern is the threat of “fugitive emissions”—the methane that leaks out of wellheads, compressor stations, and pipelines (check out this awesome New York Times investigation). Scientists have noticed a sharp spike in methane emissions beginning around 2007, which is worrisome since methane is 80 times more heat-trapping than CO2 on a 20-year basis.
In response, environmentalists are shifting their focus from the coal sector to the gas industry. While grassroots activists have been targeting the gas industry since the start of the fracking boom some 15 years ago, big green groups like the Sierra Club and Earthjustice are now making a pivot to gas.
This past year witnessed a number of important fights—and some interim victories—on the gas front. In the Southeast, the Atlantic Coast, Mountain Valley, and Potomac pipelines have been delayed by federal courts. In the Pacific Northwest, activists are doggedly fighting a proposed LNG terminal in Tacoma, Washington, and the Jordan Cove LNG facility in Oregon. And activists are trying to tackle the demand-side of the gas equation by pushing for new building codes that prohibit future gas hookups in all buildings; since June, a dozen cities nationwide have put in place bans on gas hookups for new construction.
In 2020 and beyond, keep an eye on the gas sector, which is the tip of the spear for “Keep It in the Ground” activists.
8. Oregon GOP Hijacks Climate Legislation
Photo by AP Photo/Sarah Zimmerman
Imagine—just imagine!—what it would be like if climate and environmental champions were to be elected to majorities in the US House of Representatives and the Senate, while a person dedicated to climate action was elected president. Now imagine those majorities pushing for ambitious federal climate legislation—only to then witness an anti-environment minority engage in a scorched-earth campaign, including threats of violence, to halt passage of that legislation.
Well, that’s pretty much what happened in Oregon last summer. After working for years on climate legislation, Oregon assembly members passed the Clean Energy Jobs Bill, which would have put Oregon in the vanguard of states working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But when the bill moved to the state senate, Oregon Republicans staged a walkout to prevent the chamber from having a quorum and prevent the bill from passing. Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, ordered state troopers to locate the AWOL senators, some of whom had fled to Idaho. That prompted one Republican senator, Brian Boquist, to respond with a threat of violence: “Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” he told an Oregon television station. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.” When conservative activists staged a statehouse rally in support of the missing legislators, the Oregon state police recommended shutting down the capitol building “due to a possible militia threat.” The president of the Oregon Senate then pulled the measure from consideration, and the climate legislation died an ignominious death.
The story didn’t get all that much attention outside of Oregon, but it should have. The whole sorry saga spells trouble for just about any progressive legislation on climate like the Green New Deal. It is evidence (as if any more were needed) of how a good many Republicans have lost faith in the democratic process. When it became apparent that they weren’t going to get what they wanted, Oregon Republicans shut down the entire system of lawmaking; they decided that their narrow agenda should trump democracy.
These days, compromise is no longer acceptable for many Republicans. They must, it seems, achieve political domination—even if that means violating long-standing norms of American democracy. The GOP shutdown of the Oregon senate (actually, their second this year; the first one was over vaccine and gun control legislation) is of a piece with what Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone calls the "Republican War on Democracy."
It's important to note that such ruthless political tactics come from a position not of strength but weakness. Republicans in Oregon—like Republicans nationally—know that they are outnumbered. So they are forced to engage in dirty tricks, or gross intimidation and hints of violence, designed to maintain their current power. Or, in the case of Oregon, to hold progressive reforms at bay. The result is a tyranny of the minority.
The hijacking (or is it kidnapping?) of the Oregon climate bill illustrates what is becoming a new axiom among environmental activists: In order to succeed in safeguarding and restoring our environment, we must also work to safeguard and restore American democracy.
9. Public Lands Protection Remains Bipartisan
Photo by iStock/Larry Gibson
While climate change remains a polarizing issue, there is still at least one old-fashioned environmental concern that manages to transcend partisan labels: the conservation of lands and waters and the protection of public lands for recreation.
In February, Congress passed a sweeping conservation bill, the Resources Management Act, which rolled together more than a hundred measures to protect natural resources and encourage outdoor recreation. Among other things, the bill created protections for 2.4 million acres of land, including 1.3 million acres of new federal wilderness; designated hundreds of miles of rivers as wild and scenic; permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses royalties from offshore oil and gas leasing to underwrite preservation efforts; and extended for seven years the popular Every Kid Outdoors program, which gives fourth graders and their families free entry to national parks. The vote wasn’t even close. In the Senate, the act passed 92 to 8, while the bill cleared the House by a 6-to-1 margin. President Trump signed the bill quickly after its passage.
The overwhelming bipartisan support for the conservation law offers a glimmer of hope that, even in a deeply divided nation, protecting America’s natural heritage is something that many citizens agree on. Public opinion polling bears this out. According to Colorado College’s annual Conservation in the West survey, 68 percent of Western voters consider themselves “conservationists,” and 80 percent support increased funding for parks and public lands. (The geographic focus is important since the West is often ground zero for political disputes over land management.)
Of course, it’s not all kumbaya. Disagreements persist between progressives and conservatives over how exactly public lands should be managed, and who should manage them (the federal government or the states). Nevertheless, the trans-partisan passion for lands and waters protection offers an opportunity for green groups to build a broader constituency for other types of environmental protection—like action on climate. By illustrating the connections (the intersectionality, if you will) between land, water, and wildlife protections and climate change impacts like rising temperatures, extreme weather, and shifting ecosystems, the environmental movement might just be able to move some conservative voters to support a climate action agenda.
That, at least, is something to wish for in 2020.
10. Amazon on Fire
Photo by AP Photo/Leo Correa
In August, much of the world watched in horror as large sections of the Amazon rainforest went up in flames, sending clouds of thick, black smoke over the Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paulo. Social media sites lit up as people across the planet shared images of charred forests and Indigenous communities suddenly made homeless.
By the end of August, Brazilian officials had recorded some 41,000 fires burning across the forest region. While that figure was a fraction of the annual fires that were taking place in the mid-2000s, at the height of Amazonian deforestation, it marked the biggest number of fires since 2010 and almost a doubling from the previous year. And what had changed between the 2018 and 2019 Brazilian dry seasons? The election of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president.
Bolsonaro came into office promising (or threatening, as the case may be) to open up the Amazon to increased development such as mining, logging, cattle ranching, and soy production—and he has not disappointed. On his first day in office, Bolsonaro transferred the titling of Indigenous territory to the minister of agriculture, Tereza Cristina Corrêa da Costa Dias, who has called for allowing commercial agriculture on Indigenous lands. Such moves have emboldened the agribusiness interests, loggers, and land grabbers who have long posed a threat to the health of the Amazon.
As Sierra reported at the height of the fires, the conflagrations were no accident. The first fires were deliberately set on August 10, during a “Day of Fire” that had been organized by agribusiness interests in the state of Para “to show their support for President Bolsonaro and his policy of weakening environmental inspections and fines.” Within days, 1,457 fires were burning across the state. As the fires spread, Bolsonaro did close to nothing for nearly two weeks (except for squabble with French president Emmanuel Macron), until his administration finally mobilized the army to help quench the flames.
People worldwide care about the fate of the Amazon for a reason. Due to its sheer size, the Amazon rainforest plays a crucial role in maintaining a more or less stable climate; annually, it absorbs nearly 2 billion tons of CO2. Now, due to tree cutting and forest clearing (much of which comes in the form of fire), the Amazon is at risk of reaching a self-destruct tipping point in which it would transition from forest to scrubland or savanna.
But there’s hopeful news. Even in the face of violence and extreme repression, Brazil’s Indigenous communities are maintaining a posture of resistance against the Bolsonaro agenda. In April, Indigenous protests in the capital of Brasilia forced the Bolsonaro administration to reverse some of its more retrograde positions.
The Indigenous resistance to Jair Bolsonaro offers a lesson for environmentalists everywhere: Keep fighting.