Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Environmental Stories of 2009

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2009 was a year of flood and fire, Food Inc. and flu, frugality and food waste, foreclosures and floating islands of plastic. We started the year with the worst global economy in decades but also widespread optimism over the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States and hopes that the United Nations talks on climate change scheduled for the end of the year might yield concrete results. We ended the year jaded and battle-weary. Most of us are probably ready to put 2009 behind us – but the year wasn’t a complete loss for the environment.

What were the big environmental news stories of 2009?

1. The recession. 2009 was the year many people went green to save green, but it was also a year in which the environment slid further down the public agenda. With the global economy in tatters and unemployment and foreclosures rising on both sides of the Atlantic, most people fantasized about returning to a time before they ever heard of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Frugality was the order of the day.

The good news is that consuming less is inherently green – after all, most human-caused environmental damage is a direct result of consumption. The result of all this belt-tightening is that the world’s carbon emissions will likely drop 3% in 2009. The bad news is that most of us don’t really like penny pinching and opinion polls show that in 2009 American voters became more willing to jettison the environment in favour of the economy.

2. Swine flu. Panic over H1N1 or swine flu was widespread in early 2009 as the virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. It turned out not to be as lethal as first feared and there is now a vaccine available, but experts say it is only a matter of time before the world is swept by a deadly flu pandemic like the one that killed millions of people in 1918. The real culprit here is factory farming. Swine flu seems to have arisen from a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Mexico with hundreds of thousands of pigs kept in close confine, without adequate treatment and disposal methods for the vast quantities of waste produced. Factory farms in Asia were also responsible for the outbreaks of bird flu a few years ago. The fact that air travel is now commonplace would make any deadly flu outbreak spreadly much more quickly and widely than in 1918.

3. Climate change – the political front. 2009 saw the failure of international politics to solve the problem of climate change. In December, the world’s leaders gathered in Copenhagen for a United Nations Summit on how to tackle climate change. The result was a weak agreement with low targets and no legally binding goals. Even the most optimistic commentators describe Copenhagen as “a beginning” and an “interim start”, despite the dozens of interim meetings and preliminary agreements that led up to the event over the past two years. I think that’s called “damning with faint praise”. If we tackle the mounting problem of climate change, I believe it will be a result of collective action by citizens, green entrepreneurs and unilateral action by local, regional and national governments rather than the veiled dance of international diplomacy.

4. Climate change – the ecological front. While political leaders wrung their hands and climate change deniers engaged in one last hurrah, in the real world climate change was making its presence felt. In 2009 we saw:

a) forest fires. In some parts of the world, fire has been a natural part of the eco-system for millennia. But as the climate changes, some parts of the world are becoming hotter and drier. This means forest fires that are more frequent and more intense. This year saw forest fires raging on two continents. In Australia, monster bushfires ripped through the heart of rural Victoria in February, burning down many homes and leaving forest animals like koalas dazed and thirsty. Half a year later, California was hit, with the historic Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles under threat.

b) drought. Forest fires are not the only result of a hotter and drier climate – water shortages are another. In 2009 California entered its third year of drought. State policy makers only need to look to Australia’s epic drought to see what the future might hold. There are 16 million more people living in California than the whole of Australia, so the long-term situation could be even more serious.

5. Floods. Meanwhile, the topsy-turvy weather brought too much rainfall to other parts of the world. I feel that I have been hearing about devastating annual flooding in low-lying countries like Bangladesh for most of my life. And in my native Australia, it is famously said that in the state of Queensland “the creeks run dry or 10 foot high”. But torrential downpour and burst river banks is not something that I ever associated with the bucolic scenes of rural England. In November, Britain was devastated by record rainfall and flooding that washed away bridges and inundated main streets. This came only two years after the last severe floods in Britain, which inflicted $5 billion worth of damage. It’s possible this, too, is connected to climate change, though the trends for the UK are unpredictable.

And good news…

6. The Obamas. After eight years with a climate fantasist with ties to Big Oil as President, the agenda finally shifted in a greener direction. Candidate Obama had an impressive set of environmental policies. Presidents rarely live up to the hype of inflated expectations and campaign promises. Yet President Obama’s environmental achievements are not to be sniffed. The economy and health care were high priorities for the Obama Administration in 2009 but the environment was right up there, with strong action in the first 100 days, including $62.2 billion in direct spending on green initiatives and $20 billion in green tax incentives in the economic stimulus package. The Environmental Protection Agency has been empowered to tackle the largest polluters by 2011 and together with the Department of Transportation will improve standards for fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks. Meanwhile, First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House organic vegetable garden is setting the tone.

7. Food Inc. The documentary movie on food production, directed by Robert Kenner and featuring Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, came out in 2008 but 2009 was the year it went viral. The Food Inc fan page on Facebook has over 35,000 fans. It’s still being written up on blogs, usually with the starting line “I finally saw Food Inc”. The film won Best Documentary at the Gotham Independent Film Awards earlier this month and has been nominated for an Oscar. Early signs are that it could become as influential as the 2006 global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

8. Whales. It’s hardly unqualified good news for whales, as just this month the Japanese have resumed their annual whale hunt and there were a couple of mass beachings resulting in dozens of whale deaths in New Zealand. But the good news is that whale populations are steadily recovering. Scientists have also noted that blue whales are singing a deeper song and one hypothesis is that this because increased numbers mean it’s easier to find a mate (higher pitched songs can be heard further afield than lower pitched ones).

9. Plastic bags. As our knowledge of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch grows, the world is finally taking action on the issue of plastic waste. Earlier this month EcoSalon asked if single-use plastic could be on its way out. We’re seeing plastic bans in cities from Toronto, Canada to New Delhi, India.

10. Food waste and compost. Food waste is a huge issue for the environment – as well as the waste of resources that went into the food production and transport, when food goes to landfill rather than compost it emits methane – a potent greenhouse gas – as it rots. Some statistics say a staggering half of all food produced in the US is wasted. Even in the greenest home, there are still going to be food scraps and peelings to dispose of. We’ve long been told to compost but for city dwellers with small or no back gardens, it’s not always a viable option. The good news this year is that more cities have introduced compost or green waste collections, to make it easier for people to do the green thing. In San Francisco composting is now compulsory. We’re only scratching the surface of a huge issue, but it’s a great start.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

I have no evidence to suggest that Charles Dickens was equipped with a crystal ball, but surely these immortal words are fitting for the environmental events of 2009.

Stay tuned for a post on the top environmental stories of the decade tomorrow.

Image: wollombi