We’ve made it through a whirlwind year. As we enter this young 2019, I thought the best way to move forward would be to take stock of the environmental year behind us, looking back over my columns and the broader environmental picture.
As usual when it comes to the environment, much has been bad news. But I’m ending the year on good news, and, perhaps surprisingly, feeling great hope for what’s ahead.
The biggie for bad environmental news, of course, was the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump administration in November. The assessment, performed by legal mandate every four years, lays out how experts expect climate change to affect life in the United States.
The report poured out a litany of frightening observations. The U.S. is now 1.8 degrees warmer on average than 100 years ago, with seas nine inches higher and more frequent major heatwaves. By 2050, the temperature could rise another 2.3 degrees, causing yearly coral bleaching, regular catastrophic flood events, declines in crop productivity, and, by 2090, labor losses to extreme heat worth up to $155 billion.
On the west coast this year, we saw climate-induced effects prominently in horrifying wildfires, like California’s deadliest ever, the Camp wildfire that took 86 lives. But we’re also seeing major changes right here in Massachusetts.
In April, I wrote about how classic Northeast winter industries like maple syrup production, snowmobiling and skiing are facing earlier springs and unpredictable winters. In July, I described how the ocean we love to visit each summer is changing, including heat-related drops in oxygen content, threatening species that support the marine food chain and the fishing industry.
The Gazette also reported that farmers’ crops were failing in a particularly wet year of about 7 inches more rain than average, some fearing losing their farms to the economic ramifications of rotting squash, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.
I first heard that New England would likely get wetter weather in a climate changed world way back in 2005, over 10 years ago, when I talked with scientists predicting an increase of extreme rain events in the region. What a pity for farmers, and for all of us, that we’ve been refusing to listen to the best available science.
Despite imminent climate fears, Massachusetts environmentalists had their hearts broken when the state House of Representatives rejected a major sustainable energy bill. The Senate’s version of the bill would have brought the state to 100-percent renewable power by 2047 and invested in other climate-protective initiatives. But the House said no.
Beyond climate, I’ve written about other bad news this year. Right whales — magnificent and enormous beasts that visit the coast of Cape Cod each winter — are down to fewer than 400 animals due largely to entanglement in fishing gear. Extinction is imminent. If they disappear, they’ll join the species vanishing from the earth in our human-caused “Sixth Extinction,” as coined by the title of Elizabeth Kolbert’s alarming 2014 book.
We’re also continuing to fill our world with trash, as I reported in June. China this year stopped accepting many recyclables for processing, meaning that materials we hopefully designate for new life in our recycle bins are ending up in landfills instead. The Great Garbage Patch, a gyre of trash (mostly plastics) trapped by circular currents in the Pacific Ocean, is now larger than Texas.
Despite all these worrying developments, however, there are some big, important causes for hope this year.
The National Climate Assessment was, of course, terrifying. But there’s good news embedded in its release.
Unlike prior climate reports that have suffered redaction and silencing, the NCA was released with all its warnings and predictions intact. That’s a surprising turn for an administration whose leader once called climate change a “hoax” perpetrated by China. Via the report, the administration tacitly accepted that climate change is real, is caused by human activity, and is, in fact, dangerous.
That’s important, because only when we accept the truth can we take effective steps to respond to and change it.
And respond to it we can, further events of 2018 suggest. This December, one of my students traveled to Washington, D.C., with a busload of other young people for the “Sunrise Movement” demonstrations in support of the “Green New Deal,” an environmental package prominently championed by up-and-coming Democratic representative-elect Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
Such advocacy for green jobs and commitment to renewable energy by fiery young leaders and citizens offers a breath of fresh air in a Congress too often dominated by long-time insiders, many connected, albeit to lesser or greater extents, to the fossil fuel industry via campaign donations and relationships with executives or lobbyists.
Washington isn’t the only locus for climate action. In the vacuum of federal response to the problem, the states have figured prominently. California, for instance, this year passed a bill requiring all new house construction to incorporate solar panels.
While failing to pass the Senate version of its renewable energy bill, Massachusetts this year joined several major state-led climate initiatives. With California and 14 other states, it is suing the EPA over rollbacks this year to auto-emissions standards. In June, Charlie Baker became the first Republican governor to join the United States Climate Alliance, a group of 17 states that have pledged to advance the objectives of the 2017 Paris Agreement on climate change despite the federal government’s withdrawal.
Our state has also taken steps toward helping residents and businesses manage the impacts of climate change through a $2.4 billion climate adaptation package, including money for stormwater and flood management, tree planting, and bike and bus transit, alongside money for state park maintenance.
And in September, Massachusetts greenlighted the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target Program or SMART, which provides incentives for solar power development. As I pointed out in an October column, we could meet all the energy needs of the United States with solar on the same land area currently dedicated to the nation’s roads.
In my article on waste, I pointed out that the EU has now banned single-use plastics. Municipalities like Seattle have banned plastic straws and utensils, with California the first to ban plastic straws state-wide. It’s a small but crucial start to tackling our plastics addiction.
Legislation is going up before the Massachusetts government to protect right whales. Representative Seth Moulton introduced the SAVE Right Whales Act (H.R.6060), which would dedicate $5 million annually to efforts to assist the whales, including supporting least-dangerous fishing technology.
Finally, here at home, land conservation has experienced some important recent victories. In May, the Kestrel Land Trust added 31 acres of Hadley grassland to the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The trust also worked with Cowls Inc. to place 5,000 acres of state forest land under conservation restriction, including in Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham.
A bit of safeguarded land may not feel like much in the grand scheme of our environmental worries. Yet I’ve always felt that only through building a personal bond to nature can we fully appreciate its role in our lives.
We need nature near us — reachable, walkable, and beautiful — to understand it and care about it.
My year felt best encapsulated by a column I wrote in May about a single tree. A large, rope swing-bearing maple by the Connecticut River in the Meadows finally toppled this year when the bank crumbled from under it. That tree symbolized so much: the relentless chipping away at nature’s foothold; a loss of tradition, recreation and connection; the disappearance of species.
More hopefully, though, I wrote about what we can learn from indigenous perspectives that view all things in nature — animals, trees, rocks, even the air — as persons. This ethic, one of sharing the world equally with all beings, shone in an art exhibit I wrote about at Hampshire College, where curators and students developed an artistic “collaboration” with seemingly humble slime molds.
It’s been a big, scary year for the environment, with a lot of challenges. Yet I’m sensing a new energy and push for the environment.
The forces slowing progress on environmental issues, especially in terms of the climate, are poised to crumble. Events this year have showcased serious cracks in the ability of deniers to continue to successfully discredit the reality of climate change.
A new crop of leaders is emerging both nationally and at the state level who are willing to grapple with environmental problems head-on, publicly acknowledging the facts instead of allowing the nation to bury its head in the sand.
And locally and state-wide, real action is spreading, bringing with it sustainable jobs and economic growth.
For me, then, the lesson for protecting the environment in 2019 is simply this: heads up, troops. Let’s keep on forging on.