In a recent column, I discussed my pick for the top 10 environmental stories of 2014. That got me to thinking about the coming year. In some cases, we can already predict some of the top environmental battles of 2015. Of course, other issues and conflicts will arise, so this top 10 list will have to be adjusted at the end of the year, but all of these stories will figure prominently in the headlines of 2015.
1. The Keystone XL pipeline – Republicans have already declared their intention to pass bills in the House and Senate to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. This pipeline, intended to bring large amounts of tar sands oil from Canada down to the U.S. Gulf Coast for refining and shipping overseas, requires the approval of the State Department; in other words, ultimately it requires the approval of President Obama. He has delayed approval of the pipeline several times already, and has indicated that climate change considerations will play a big role in his final decision. Republicans, anxious to serve their fossil fuel company funders, and to pretend to be for job creation, have already pledged to make this one of the first items on their legislative agenda when Congress resumes in January. Though barely defeated last fall, the Republican leadership has made clear their plan to make this struggle a high priority.
2. Global Divestment Day – Around the world, there will be actions on the weekend of Feb. 13-14, to step up the movement for divestment from fossil fuel companies. This movement has already had some notable successes, including the Rockefeller Fund, a number of colleges and universities, and several cities, including Seattle. While by itself this movement is not likely to significantly hurt the targeted corporations in the near term, it has already had an impact on the image of these companies, such that they have stepped up their public relations advertising because they are worried about the future impact. As well, the divestment campaigns have drawn the attention of some investment professionals, who note that much of the current stock value of fossil fuel companies is based on “proven reserves” as if all those reserves will be tapped for future production and profit. But most of the reserves will have to stay in the ground to avoid climate catastrophe. If the companies can’t tap those reserves, they become “stranded assets,” not available for exploitation, and hence the stock value of the companies is largely fictional. So some investment advisors are recommending dumping such stocks. The divestment movement is only going to force this issue more to the fore.
3. Battles over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Many Republican-led legislatures are planning on state-specific bills to attack the authority of the EPA to regulate carbon pollution in their state, to prevent their states from submitting required information to the EPA, and other obstructionist tactics. No doubt there will also be efforts in Congress, though these will face the likelihood of a presidential veto. These legislative efforts will require a state-by-state fightback.
4. New and additional science will confirm the reality of climate change caused by human activity – Additional confirmation continues to accumulate. In 2014, new studies of the world’s oceans, the ice sheets in Antarctica, and many others added to the already overwhelming evidence that climate change is happening, that it is caused by human activity, that it threatens our common future, and that it has and will continue to lead to resource conflicts. The year 2014 was the hottest yet, and while 2015 may not break any temperature records (or it may), the trend of hotter years, earlier springs, later winters, more extreme weather events, more forest fires, more drought, will continue. Dead zones in the world’s oceans will continue to grow, from plastic pollution to agricultural run-off. Species extinction and threats to more plant and animals will escalate.
5. Debates about capitalism as the cause of environmental problems and as obstacle to solutions will intensify – Since the publication of the latest book by Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything,” debates about whether or not capitalism must be eliminated in order to save the planet for developed human existence will become louder and more prominent.
6. Environmental struggles and issues will play a bigger role in the 2016 presidential election – With Republicans determined to prevent action on climate change and other environmental issues, and the base of the Democratic Party and independent voters demanding a stronger stance on these issues, the environment will be a key issue in the 2016 presidential campaigns. All the environmental struggles in 2015 will propel these issues more to the fore, and force all candidates to take a stance. As more and more people are convinced of the need to address climate change, the pressure to step up our efforts will play a bigger role in all political campaigns, including those for Congress as well. Republican efforts (and those of some Democrats from states dependent on the fossil fuel industry) to obstruct the more aggressive policies now being pursued by the Obama administration will also force environmental issues forward.
7. More extreme weather events – Even though no one can predict exactly which kinds of extreme weather events will happen, or where or when, we can predict with certainty that, as has happened over the past decade, there will be unexpected impacts from such events. From Hurricane Sandy to the multi-year California drought to supposedly “hundred-year floods” that happen every couple of years now, each year we have seen exceptional destruction from these events. And they often have unexpected impacts as well, as happened several years ago in Fukushima, Japan, when a rising storm surge knocked out water-cooled reactors, causing a meltdown and release of radioactivity.
8. More confirmation of negative health consequences of environmental pollution and destruction – Also accumulating are studies that prove increasingly harmful effects to human health and all life forms from pollution, extreme weather, warming, expanding ranges for tropical diseases, and so on. Life depends on our environment for food, air, water, and general health, and when we harm the environment, we harm ourselves as well. We can also be certain that over the coming year, the spate of oil and gas leaks and spills, and tanker train derailments and explosions will continue, with negative consequences for human health beyond the immediate impacts of such disasters.
9. International negotiations in Paris – The United Nations-sponsored negotiations, most recently in Lima, Peru, are expected to culminate in Paris in November and December 2015. Building on progress made in Lima and on the bilateral agreement between China and the U.S. last fall, expectations are high for reaching a more far-reaching international agreement to reduce carbon pollution. It seems likely that an agreement will be reached in Paris, and that between now and then more unilateral and bilateral goals and commitments will be announced. It also seems certain that while serious progress will be made, the agreements will not be sufficient by themselves to halt the rollercoaster ride to climate catastrophe the world is on.
10. The global climate movement will grow – Undoubtedly, there will be a massive demonstrations in Paris next December, to coincide with the UN negotiations, accompanied by large-scale solidarity demonstrations around the world in dozens of countries. This will build on the momentum from the People’s Climate March in NYC in September 2014. This will be the most visible manifestation of the climate change and environmental movements and their growth, maturity and reach, resulting from campaigns, events, demonstrations, education, and petition drives all year long. Those will address issues from fracking (and the banning of fracking, as in New York State recently), to pollution of water sources, to coping with the long-range consequences of the California drought, to divestment struggles on many campuses and in many cities, to publicizing the conclusions of new scientific studies to educate the public. Large sections of the labor movement will also become more involved in environmental struggles. There will continue to be calls by religious leaders to address climate change.
This year will be crucial for the movement, and also for efforts to protect the planet. Demonstrations will grow in size and scope; scientific studies will expand our knowledge about the causes and effects of environmental destruction and despoliation; the costs of solar and wind power will continue to fall; more politicians worldwide will feel pressured to propose policies to shift our energy economies and pollution practices in a positive direction.
And we can also predict, with certainty, that 2016 will continue all these developments.
Photo: A man lifts up a balloon of the Earth at the 2014 People’s Climate March. | Mel Evans/AP