Top 10 lists are all the rage, but if seeing King Kong the other night taught me anything, it’s that more isn’t always better. In that spirit, here are my nominations for the top five environmental stories of the year.

1. Katrina

NOAA Photo Library image

The discussion about Hurricane Katrina and global warming largely missed the point. Of course global warming didn’t cause Katrina — any given weather event is the nexus of thousands of causes, proximate and distal. The exact degree of attribution scientifically supported is a question for eco-wonks and science geeks.

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The point about Katrina that will linger in the public’s mind is: Oh, that’s what climate can do.

And, relatedly: We are totally and completely unprepared.

2. Bush wins on climate change

Despite taking fire from an astonishing array of sources — Tony Blair, Democrats, city mayors, state attorneys general, celebrity spokesfolk, science advocacy groups, a majority of the public, and even Republicans in Congress — the Bush administration succeeded in delaying significant efforts to address climate change for another year. At home, at the G8 summit, at the Montreal U.N. climate talks, it simply dug in its heels. No one figured out how to move it.

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3. Act locally

Federal intransigence aside, 2005 saw a flurry of state and local initiatives on climate change.

In late December, after two years of wrangling, seven northeastern states signed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an agreement to reduce emissions from power plants. The California Public Utilities Commission this fall resolved to boost funding for solar energy to $3.2 billion over the next 11 years, creating the world’s second largest solar program. Schwarzenegger and Pataki, leading the nation’s two most influential states, threw their (Republican) weight behind a range of eco-friendly legislation. Seattle mayor Greg Nickels corralled roughly 300 fellow U.S. mayors into pledging to meet or exceed Kyoto targets. Chicago, Portland, Salt Lake, and dozens of other cities announced green initiatives this year.

Most folks are aware of this stuff as a local issue, if at all. But in 2005, the media started connecting the dots.

4. Arctic Refuge still undrilled

They tried and failed to get it in the energy bill. They tried and failed to get it into the budget reconciliation bill. They tried and failed to get it into the defense appropriations bill.

They’ll keep trying.

By now, the fight over the Refuge has become far larger than the patch of land in question. Do we care at all about unspoiled land? Will we respond to energy pressure by drilling, refining, and going to war? The symbolic stakes have become incredibly high — all the more reason it’s important to keep winning.

5. Fuel prices and hybrids

A variety of factors and trends, many temporary, collided to produce spiking gas prices this year. That turned the nation’s attention — finally — to the fuel efficiency of its automobiles. SUV sales fell and hybrids continued their remarkable success story. American automakers (whose woes are, to be fair, multifarious) lagged behind, looked like fools, and hastened to jump on the bandwagon. Research on lighter hybrids, plug-in hybrids, “trybrids” that can also accept ethanol, and of course hydrogen cars proceeded at a breakneck pace. It became something close to conventional wisdom that all cars will eventually be hybrids.

Of course, the price of oil could sink again in 2006 and carry gas prices with it, erasing the new fuel consciousness from the fickle American mind. Time will tell.


Most of my choices are about politics, and most are U.S. centered. I’yam what I’yam.

There are tectonic shifts underway beneath the surface of American life. One is the increasingly widespread use of green strategies by large corporations. Another is the explosive growth of clean energy — solar, wind, and hydrokinetic. Another is the final mop-up operation by science against climate contrarians, who have now largely admitted the planet is warming and fallen back to arguing that a) it’s not our fault, and b) even if it was, we couldn’t stop it, and c) hey, maybe it’ll be fun. Another is the resurgence of interest in nuclear power.

I didn’t include these because none reached a tipping point or broke through the surface of the news cycle via a single, dramatic, attention-focusing event. These are things you know about if you’re paying attention, but “top stories” are things you’re aware of even if you’re not paying attention — as, for better or worse, most people aren’t.

This is, of course, my idiosyncratic list. If you have additions or suggestions, please, leave them in comments.

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