Below is a quick review of some of the biggest environmental stories of 2012. The “top stories” are listed in no particular order.
Scientists: we’re reaching a tipping point (Hance)
Climate change, overpopulation, consumption, and ecological destruction is pushing planet Earth toward a tipping point according to a major study in Nature released over the summer. This could result in a new “planetary state” that would be far harsher and bleaker than the current one (beginning around 12,000 years ago), which saw the rise and success of human society. According to scientists, if 50-90 percent of an ecosystem is altered, it risks falling into collapse. Extrapolating this over the whole globe, scientists found that today 43 percent of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems have been converted into agriculture and cities. Even unaltered areas are impacted by pollution, biodiversity decline, and climate change. To avoid a tipping point, the researchers say we should not allow 50 percent of the world’s ecosystems to be lost. But this will prove impossible without rapid action and societal change, as the global population continues to grow and more ecosystems are lost every year to agriculture, urbanization, mining, and logging. What would a new planetary state look like? Biodiversity would likely collapse impacting food production and other ecosystem services; the Earth would warm to a new temperature regime of destructive extremes; and vanishing natural resources would likely spawn human conflict. In other words, human societies would face one calamity after another. The scientists say it doesn’t have to be this way, instead we need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels, conserve biodiversity, protect forests, overhaul fisheries, transform agricultural systems, deal with overpopulation via education and access to contraception, and focus on an economy of human well-being over GDP. All of this is possible, it’s merely a matter of will.
The great Arctic melt: record sea ice melt stuns scientists (Hance)
Global warming is causing dramatic changes worldwide, none more so than the loss in Arctic sea ice. This year, the sea ice–which expands during the Arctic winter and shrinks during the summer–hit its lowest extent ever recorded: 3.4 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles). The new record, beating the previous set just five years ago, upset even the most pessimistic predictions of how quickly the Arctic sea ice could vanish and caused scientists to re-evaluate how swiftly the world is changing. Arctic sea ice is important to a wide variety of species in the region, including polar bears and seals. The loss of sea ice is also expected to create a positive feedback cycle, heating up the region even faster. But the impacts may go far beyond the Arctic: new studies published this year have found a tantalizing link between the loss of Arctic sea ice and some weather patterns: less ice in the Arctic may be slowing down the jet stream and causing weather patterns to become stuck, known to meteorologists as blocking patterns. It was just such a blocking pattern that pushed Hurricane Sandy into the East Coast rather than out to sea, where such hurricanes usually venture to dissipate over the Atlantic. More research is necessary, but the great Arctic melt may have impacts far beyond the top of the world. Scientists now believe the Arctic will be ice free within a few decades. According to research this hasn’t occurred in at least 2.5 million years; modern humans have only been around for 200,000 years.
Hurricane Sandy brings climate change back to U.S. consciousness (Hance)
After a U.S. Presidential Election where not a single moderator in four debates asked a question on climate change–an issue that many scientists and world leaders see as the globe’s most pressing–Hurricane Sandy changed everything, at least in the short-term. After killing over a hundred people in the Caribbean, Hurricane Sandy struck the U.S. East Coast, sending massive storm surges up the New Jersey coast and flooding Lower Manhattan. The storm killed 153 people in the U.S. and inflicted damages that will cost upwards of $80 billion. Scientists say the tropical storm was likely intensified by climate change: rising sea levels means larger storm surges, warmer ocean waters cause more precipitation, and unseasonal weather means hurricane season may be lasting longer. In fact, recent studies predict that while climate change may not increase the number of hurricanes in general, it will increase the number of extremely intense ones. Images of Manhattan under water and storm-ravaged New Jersey found their way around the world, and instigated a new national debate on climate change. Shortly after the storm, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Barack Obama for a second term, largely due to his acceptance of climate science and his support of programs to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. In Obama’s first press conference after winning re-election, he was asked the question moderator’s sipped during the debate, i.e. what will he do to combat climate change? His lackluster response was less important perhaps than the fact that the question was asked: something that would have been unthinkable a month earlier. The media and political silence over climate change during the past few years in the U.S. had become so ironically deafening that activists created whole groups and campaigns urging people to simply raise the issue about it then came Hurricane Sandy. But while Sandy has undoubtedly raised awareness and media coverage of the impacts of climate change, whether or not it spurs meaningful action remains to be seen.
Fire scar from Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado. Photo by: NASA.
New research finds link between climate change and droughts, floods, heat waves (Butler)
High profile research published in 2012 built a case to link increasing weather variability to climate change. In March, a review published in Nature Climate Change found “strong evidence” of a link between a warming world and the frequency and intensity of droughts, floods, and heat waves. In July, a report published by the American Meteorological Society reached a similar conclusion. The American Meteorological Society’s report is intended to be an annual offering.
Failure at Rio+20 (Hance)
Rio+20 was billed as a chance for global society to begin a transition towards sustainability, merging economic goals (such as eradicating poverty) with environmental ones. While no one expected a miracle, the agreement–non-binding–which was eventually signed was blasted by a wide array of environmental and anti-poverty groups as “pathetic,” (Greenpeace), “a dead end” (Oxfam), and “a colossal waste of time” (WWF). Criticism didn’t just come from outside groups, EU representative Ida Auken said they were “not happy with it.” Even issues where environmental campaigners thought they’d see progress, such as improved management of the high seas which have been rampantly overfished, nations (in this case U.S., Japan, Canada, Russia and Venezuela) were able to kick any meaningful changes down the road for another few years. Ending fossil fuel subsidies, which was buoyed by massive grassroots support, was also avoided thanks to countries like Canada and Venezuela. Some blamed the host nation, Brazil, for pushing for any agreement so long as it was signed. Some singled out Canada and the U.S. for watering everything down. The Rio+20 agreement acknowledges the global environmental crisis, entrenched poverty, the importance of a new economic model that takes ecosystems into account but nations left the summit committed to doing pretty much nothing about it.
Loss and damages enters climate agreement at Doha (Hance)
While the Climate Summit at Doha was largely characterized by a complete lack of ambition and an inability, once again, for countries to match policy with what science demands to stave off dangerous climate change, there was one surprising move at the meeting: loss and damages. It may sound innocuous, but when future generations look back at the Doha summit, these may be the words that most ring out. For the first time the Doha agreement sets up a mechanism by which vulnerable nations may receive funds from carbon polluters for loss and damages. In other words, an island nation that is flooded by rising seas could potentially seek compensation for the destruction from the world’s big polluters. Not surprisingly, the addition was opposed by many in the developed world, including the U.S. In the end, the agreement’s language was watered down and watered down and added under the already—established $100 billion fund—to avoid claims of unlimited money—before the U.S. and other could agree. But this may open the door, however slight, for countries racked by climate change impacts to seek compensation.
Carnage: rhino and elephant poaching accelerates (Butler)
Fueled by surging middle class demand for rhino horn and elephant ivory in Vietnam and China, rhino and elephant poaching accelerated in 2012. Mass slaughters of elephants were recorded in several countries including particularly grisly massacres in Chad and Cameroon. A number of elephants were killed in oil palm plantations in Sumatra, while South Africa reporting a new record in rhino killing. Meanwhile the well-protected Java rhino population is believed to be holding steady at around 38 individuals on the island of Java and Nepal reported that not a single rhino was killed by poachers within its borders in 2011.
Flood of research shows pesticides playing role in bee decline (Hance)
Has the smoking gun for Colony Collapse Disorder been found? Maybe. A slew of new studies have shown that popular pesticides are likely decimating bee populations over the long-term and at the sublethal level, in other words while the pesticides don’t kill the bees outright, their impacts may eventually lead to a complete breakdown of colonies. Two studies in Science found that pesticides which first came into use in the 1990s, known as neonicotinoids, have resulted in bee hives losing their queens while worker bees seeing a loss in their ability to navigate, until eventually they would become lost to the hive. Another research project found that lacing corn syrup, which is increasingly fed to bees, with tiny amounts of neonicotinoids resulted in the collapse of hives after six months. They theorize that the pesticide is reaching bees through corn fields sprayed with neonicotinoids. Several other studies during the year found similar long-term impacts on bees due to pesticide exposure. The studies have not gone unnoticed: France this year banned one of the pesticides in the studies, while the EU is looking at the issue as well. Pesticide makers, who make hundreds of millions annually on sales of neonicotinoids, deny any link between their products and the bee collapse but the new studies provide increasingly difficult data to ignore. The question is beginning to be asked: how quickly will governments act?
Mixed messages from Brazil on the Amazon rainforest (Butler)
In October, Brazil sparked fear in the hearts of some environmentalists when President Dilma Rousseff signed into law a revised version of the country’s forest code, which governs how much forest private landowners must maintain. Though the most controversial aspects of the new code were excluded by Rousseff, greens nonetheless warned that it could spur an increase in deforestation at the same time that the Brazilian government is planning massive infrastructure expansion across the Amazon Basin. On that front, work on the Belo Monte dam, set to become one the world’s largest dams, moved forward after Brazil’s Supreme Court set aside complaints raised by rights groups and environmentalists. The project will divert 80 percent of the flow of the Xingu River, a major Amazon tributary, and flood tens of thousands of hectares of forest. But even as these developments raised concerns, Brazil in December announced that Amazon forest loss fell to the lowest on record between August 2011 and July 2012. Annual deforestation in that period was more than 80 percent below the 2003-2004 peak of 27,772 sq km.
Chut Wutty with Prey Lang Network representatives, November 2011. Copyright Fran Lambrick 2011. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Chut Wutty and Cambodian bloodshed (Butler)
With one of the world’s highest rates of primary forest loss and a series of controversial concessions granted to foreign companies in key forest areas, Cambodia is widely viewed as an environmental pariah. But things took a turn for the worse with several high profile murders of environmentalists in 2012. In April, forest activist Chut Wutty was shot dead at an illegal logging site by military police. His killing — which journalists say was not properly investigated — was followed in September by the brutal slaying of Hang Serei Oudom, a journalist who often reported on illegal logging.
Massacre of rangers and okapi at park headquarters (Hance)
In the early morning of June 24th, a marauding group of poachers–headed by notorious Paul Sadala, a.k.a. ‘Morgan’–raided the headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They set fire to buildings, destroyed equipment, shot down two rangers and killed four other people, and then in a truly bizarre act killed 13 rare okapis housed at the facility as “ambassadors” for the forest. The devastating attack is believed to be revenge for recent initiatives to fight illegal elephant poaching and gold mining in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Plagued by two recent civil wars that left millions dead both due to violence as well as disease and starvation, the DRC remains one of the most difficult places in the world to practice conservation work, yet is home to a stunning variety of rainforest species, from forest elephants to mountain gorillas. The brazen attack by Morgan and his crew also highlights the increasing clashes around the world between poachers, often backed by organized criminals, and wildlife rangers as demand for wildlife parts such as ivory, rhino horn, and tiger bones sky rocket.
Australia creates world’s biggest marine protected areas (Hance)
At the kickoff of the Rio+20 Summit, Australia announced it would establish the world’s largest network of marine protected areas, spanning 3.1 million square kilometers (1.19 million square miles). The announcement meant that the country would increase the number of its marine reserves from 27 to 60, putting nearly 40 percent of its waters under some form of protection. The plan also set aside a part of the Coral Sea, which includes the Great Barrier Reef, for protection. The new marine protected areas include bans on oil and gas mining and tougher regulations on fisheries. Marine scientists have become increasingly vocal that oceanic biodiversity is imperiled by a combination of overfishing, nutrient pollution, ocean acidification and climate change.
Extinct toad returned to the wild due to artificially enhanced ecosystem (Hance)
In what may well be a world first in species conservation, a vanished animal has been reintroduced into its habitat but only after engineers built a man-made system in order to recreate a lost ecosystem. Discovered in 1996 in Tanzania, the Kihansi spray toad (Nectophrynoides asperginis) went extinct just 13 years later. What happened? The construction of a dam altered the the flow of the Kihansi River, drying up the toad’s habitat. Without its moist, fecund ecosystem the toad went extinct. However successful captive breeding efforts saved the toad from total oblivion. Then came the construction of a specially built “misting system” that brings the river’s spray from rapids back to the toads’ habitat. In October of this year, researchers released the first Kihansi spray toads back into the wild.
Australia kicks off carbon tax and Mexico passes climate legislation, but both imperiled (Hance)
This summer Australia kicked off a carbon tax that targets around 300 of the country’s biggest polluters. The tax started out at around $24 for every metric ton of carbon pollution, aiming to cut carbon by 159 million metric tons in eight years. The money raised by the tax will be used to reduce income taxes, increase pensions, and welfare. The Clean Energy Act establishing the tax was hugely opposed by Australia’s opposition government, the Centre-right coalition, which warned it would repeal the tax if they gain power. Meanwhile, Mexico passed the strongest climate legislation yet in a developing country this spring. The legislation pledges to cut carbon emissions 30 percent by 2020, according to 2000 levels. However, with the election of Enrique Pena Nieto in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as the new president, the implementation of this law may be hampered. Nieto has pledged to increase oil and gas production in Mexico, which is the 11th largest carbon polluter.
Dam occupations: Belo Monte and Murum dams (Butler)
Indigenous protesters in Brazil and Sarawak rose up against controversial rainforest dam projects. At the Belo Monte site, several demonstrations culminated in a group of protesters digging a trench through the an earthen dam that blocks a portion of the Xingu River. That action was followed by a three-week occupation of the dam site. Belo Monte will flood more than 40,000 hectares of rainforest and displace tens of thousands of people. The project will impede the flow of the Xingu, which is one of the Amazon’s mightiest tributaries, disrupting fish migrations and potentially affecting nutrient flows in a section of the basin. In Sarawak, a state in Malaysian Borneo, indigenous community members blockaded a key road leading to the Murum dam site. The 900 megawatt Murum dam will inundate 24,500 hectares of native land and force the resettlement of seven indigenous communities.
Indonesian government blocks controversial oil palm plantation (Butler)
After a long-standing campaign by environmentalists and local communities, the Indonesian government investigated an oil palm concession under development by PT Kallista Alam in Tripa peat swamp on the island of Sumatra. Officials found “irregularities” in the company’s permit, leading to revocation by a court. Tripa was widely seen as a test case for Indonesia’s commitment to a two-year moratorium on new logging and plantation concessions across 14.5 million hectares of forest and peatlands. The concession was granted in an off-limits area after the moratorium was in effect. The area was also protected under an earlier presidential decree on conversion of deep peat. PT Kallista Alam has since sued the governor of Aceh for revoking the permit.
Australia passes Lacey Act-like legislation against illegal timber imports (Butler)
In November, Australia passed the Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill, joining the U.S. in outlawing the importation of illegal logged timber from abroad. The new legislation makes it a criminal offense for Australian businesses to import timber from illegal operations. The Australian government estimates that $400 million worth of illegal timber products are sold in the country each year often as outdoor furniture and wood for decks. The law was pushed by a wide coalition of businesses, environmental groups, and social and religious organizations.
(12/22/2011) A quick review of some of the biggest environmental stories of 2011.
(12/20/2010) A review of some of the biggest environmental stories of 2010.