Is humanity doomed? An early draft of Truthdig’s review of the year’s environmental reporting answered unambiguously “yes.” But after browsing the stories we published over the past 12 months, I’m less sure.
The sensibility that formed in me as a university student was as dark as it should have been, given that my generation was inheriting a poison-riddled world that was fast becoming measurably more dangerous. But after six years and numerous readings, conversations and deliberations, this posture of fatalism is harder to maintain.
A society’s perceptions and attitudes can undergo seismic changes in a relatively short period, with consequences that can be just as far-reaching. Imagine yourself deep in the Great Depression. Would you have believed a significant redistribution of economic power—and the birth of one of the world’s great middle classes—lay just a few years ahead?
We may feel that a long experience of frustration and disappointment would presage a future that contains the same, but the world is complex, history is more intricately woven than any of us can fully perceive, and no one can know for certain what lies ahead.
With those considerations in mind, let’s review some of the biggest environmental stories of 2015.
We begin with establishment figures who urged their peers in leadership positions not to delay their responses to environmental problems.
The biggest story in this realm may have been the papal encyclical “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis’ argument that the world’s Catholics and international leaders should take up climate change and runaway capitalism as existential crises demanding swift and decisive resolution on moral, religious grounds. Published in May, it was a papal foray into progressive politics unprecedented in our lifetime, one that continued to draw publicity as Francis took his message before the U.S. Congress in September.
Catholics were responsive. Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and archbishop of Louisville, Ky., described the document as “our marching orders for advocacy,” one that “really brings about a new urgency for us.” The pope had his critics as well. Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, argued that Francis’ suggestions were meaningless without a plan to limit human population.
Activists found another surprising advocate in Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates. In October, Gates said “the private sector is inept” when it comes to managing or averting environmental catastrophe. He suggested that government may be best suited to handle the problem, saying, “Since World War II, U.S.-government R&D has defined the state of the art in almost every area.”
Then there was Mark Carney, chairman of the G-20 countries’ Financial Stability Board and governor of the Bank of England, saying in the same month that climate change threatens a global financial crash. “Our societies face a series of profound environmental and social challenges,” he told the BBC. “The combination of the weight of scientific evidence and the dynamics of the financial system suggest that, in the fullness of time, climate change will threaten financial resilience and longer-term prosperity.” And finally, there were the 10 Republican lawmakers who in September—one week before Francis visited Congress—broke ranks with their party leaders and called for “conservative environment stewardship.”
Most of the big players continued to misbehave, however, through inaction and obstruction.
A groundbreaking investigation published in September revealed that in the 1970s Exxon oil executives had hard evidence that fossil fuels contributed to global warming and hired scientists to manufacture studies that showed the opposite. The company went after journalists who exposed the cover-up, and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called for a Department of Justice investigation into Exxon’s misinformation campaign.
In a story revealed this month, Greenpeace activists posing as representatives of oil and coal companies approached Penn State and Princeton university professors, offering to pay them to write reports touting the alleged benefits of rising carbon dioxide levels and of coal use in developing countries. The academics agreed to do so without disclosing the source of their funding. There, we saw misinformation in action.
Adding insult to injury, an International Monetary Fund study released in May showed that fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, receive subsidies from the world’s governments amounting to $10 million every minute of every day. They use this money to pursue projects that are known to be dangerous. An example of this was the U.S. government last spring allowing Royal Dutch Shell PLC to drill in the Arctic—despite a known 75 percent or greater chance that it would result in an ecologically disastrous spill.
There were some bright spots, however. In November, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline project, a piece of infrastructure that would have enabled oil companies to pump harvested fuel from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Activists who protested the construction throughout the U.S. took some credit for Obama’s decision.