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Year in Review


Plenty’s picks for the top environmental stories of 2007




Now that we’ve crossed the threshold into 2008, the editors at Plenty have taken some time to reflect on the biggest environmental stories of 2007. There were several dark moments (including various Bush administration shenanigans) but also a plethora of bright spots, such as a colossal discovery from the depths of the ocean and the growing public concern for the environment. Take a look at our picks for the top 10 stories, and other notable headlines that didn’t make the cut.

10. Crude Awakening

Greenies have long regarded oil as a cruder version of the devil, but this year brought black gold even more disrespect. For one, oil came close to costing $100 a barrel ($99.29 on November 21!), and some say it will top that in 2008, bringing predictions that petro’s about to peak. 2007 also saw toxic spills a’plenty: Vietnam; Norway; and San Francisco, just to name a few.

9. When It Rains It Pours

Natural disasters struck across the globe in 2007. Fires blazed in Southern California and Southern Europe. Drought hit the Southern US. Floods inundated the Midwestern US and England. North America and Europe suffered record-breaking heat waves. Extreme weather events are part of nature, but scientists warn that our addiction to CO2-emitting fossil fuels is increasing their frequency and intensity.

 

8. The Farmer and the Bill

Just weeks ago, by a vote of 79-14, the Senate passed the Farm, Nutrition, and Bio-energy Act of 2007. Veto-threats be damned—strong bi-partisan support will most likely ensure that the environmentally friendlier bill (taking over for the expired 2002 Farm Bill) will survive… bio-fuel tax credits, wind power funding, nutrition programs, conservation efforts, and all.

7. The Ferment over Ethanol

When Bush announced in his State of the Union address a decade-long plan to replace 20 percent of America's transportation fuel primarily with ethanol, it facilitated a rise in corn and crop prices worldwide. According to the Economist, food prices have risen by 75 percent since 2005. One third of the US's maize crop grown this year—the largest crop in history—will be used as fuel.

6. The Bali Brouhaha

For two weeks in December, environmental ministers from around the world and their respective posses met on the balmy Indonesian island of Bali to hash out preliminary terms for a world treaty to mitigate climate change. Overseen by the United Nations, the final agreement will succeed the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012. The US delegation’s opposition to helping poorer countries fight global warming stalled the talks, but countries did finally agree on some goals.

5. Energy Bill

Incandescent lights, gas mileage gages above 35 miles per gallon, and dependence on foreign oil are going the way of the dinosaurs, along with the government's slow-melting indifference to global warming. Higher energy efficiency standards and conservation efforts will be gradually phased into practice with the Energy Independence and Security Act, ratified on December 19, 2007.

4. The China Syndrome 

As China emerges as an economic force to be reckoned with, the country’s severe environmental problems are coming to light. Decreased groundwater levels and polluted oceans, virtually extinct animals like the Baiji river dolphin and the Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle, lead contamination in exports, and health concerns from 2008 Olympic athletes are just a few of the environmental issues China grappled with this year.

3. Censoring Science

Though much of the media focused on the environmental stances of presidential candidates at the end of the year, a report (PDF) published in December snapped the spotlight back to the actions of the current president. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that White House officials aimed to squelch scientific views of climate change that conflicted with the Bush administration’s policies, sparking a debate between Republicans and Democrats.

2. Air Supply

In its first case confronting global warming, the Supreme Court ruled in April that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the authority to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from cars because they are air pollutants. The decision was a rebuke to the Bush administration’s policy on global warming.

1. The Heat Is On

The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report on February 2 began changing the political and scientific landscape. The report declared that the evidence of warming is “unequivocal” and opened with the firm statement that human activity is "very likely" responsible for the current climate change trend—a change from the 2001 report, which found that burning fossil fuels had “likely” played a role.

RUNNERS UP:

Organic Panic

Organic food hit a critical mass in 2006, but in 2007 the focus turned local. People questioned whether buying pesticide-free, non-GMO foods mattered if doing so burned excessive amounts of fossil fuels. Local took the lead. The locavore movement became the totem for health, eco-ness, and a back-to-the-land sensibility aimed at defying Big Ag. But the debate rages on; new studies question whether buying local actually decreases carbon emissions.

Sounding Off About Offsets

Carbon offsets enable individuals and organizations to breathe easier about everything from long-distance travel to Christmas shopping. But in 2007, watchdog groups and scientists began asking questions: Is our newfound sense of guiltlessness justified? And where is the money from offsets actually going? A BBC report on a House of Commons environmental audit committee hearing cited prominent opponents as saying that carbon offset programs give businesses a “license to pollute” and are an “unbelievably inefficient way to reduce emissions” because they do little to change consumer behavior.

On Thin Ice

Artic sea ice is melting at a faster rate than had previously been projected by IPCC assessments, revealed a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center. Instead of the 2.5 percent per decade reduction estimated during the period 1953-2006, satellite measurements revealed a decline of 7.8 percent.

Ocean acidification

Coral reefs are dying and could disappear entirely in the next 50 to 75 years, researchers reported in the journal Science in December. The decline is due largely to rising global temperatures and CO2 emissions increasing ocean acidification. Another team found that a stew of factors including climate change, disease and destructive fishing practices are causing corals in the Pacific Oceans to die off at unprecedented rates. But experts say we can save the structures there if we act quickly. And 2008 is the International Year of the Reef, so groups will be working to raise global awareness of the benefits of coral reefs—and the threats to their survival.

The Great Greenwashing Flood

More and more companies are claiming that their products or practices are green, but they might not be as good for the earth as they claim. In December, environmental marketing company TerraChoice released a study on “The Six Sins of Greenwashing." The report found that 99% of 1,018 common consumer products randomly surveyed had been “greenwashed”—advertised as being in some way environmentally friendly when they weren’t.

Party Time: Big, Loud Eco-Events

In April, Bill McKibben’s Step It Up rally—the largest grassroots environmental protest since Earth Day 1970—brought activists together in more than 1,300 communities (some underwater), to demand an 80 percent reduction in US carbon emissions by 2050. Then, on July, The Police, Bon Jovi, Madonna, and dozens of other musicians sang a call to action at Gore’s Live Earth concert: 24 hours of music across seven continents, staged in New York, London, Sydney, Tokyo, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, and Hamburg. The year closed out with the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo hosted by Hollywood stars with performances by international artists who lauded a healthy planet as the route toward peace. 

Colossal Squid Captured

Rivaling the creatures imagined by Jules Verne, on February 21, New Zealand fisherman caught the largest colossal squid on record. Weighing about half a ton and measuring 33 feet long, the squid is housed in the Kiwi national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, where scientists are currently studying the specimen that resided in [at?] depths of 6,560 feet.

The Gore Effect 

Al Gore may not be Time’s Person of the Year, but to environmentalists, he might as well be. After winning an Academy Award for his climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Gore was also honored with an International Emmy for his work in broadcasting and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this year. In 2008, look for global warming-themed ad campaigns from Gore’s nonprofit, the Alliance for Climate Protection.

Emerald Cities Smackdown 

This year saw a competition brewing between mayors of major cities over who’s hood got the greatest green cred. Some of the more notable eco initiatives: Michael Bloomberg’s PlanNYC to reduce New York’s carbon and plant more trees; Richard Daley’s 2.5 million square feet of green roofs in Chicago; and led by mayor Greg Nickels, Seattle reduced its emissions eight percent below 1990 levels. [maybe add a governor quote to show the sense of competition and the humor of it.]

Green for God

Back in May, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders came together to write an “Interfaith Declaration” to President Bush and Congress, calling for immediate action on climate change and citing their shared “reverence for life.” The letter marked a surge in communities of believers from all religions, who see their faith as a call to environmental action.