The climate champions of 2013
In a year that saw carbon pollution levels hit the milestone of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere and brought record-breaking drought, fires, typhoons, and air pollution, it can be easy to forget there are climate champions out there, pushing back on those climate grinches. Here are a few of the climate heroes that made progress, inspired, or otherwise made an impact in 2013:
Naderev “Yeb” Saño
Three days after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall, Philippines climate negotiator Naderev “Yeb” Saño told the delegation at the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that his island nation had run out of time for failed climate negotiations. Saño vowed to go on a hunger strike until “clear progress was made.” Saño challenged climate change deniers and countries less impacted by the effects of global warming, saying, “I dare them, I dare them to get off their ivory towers and away from the comfort of their armchairs. I dare them to go to the islands of the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Indian ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods, to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling sea ice caps, to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned, to the hills of Central America that confronts similar monstrous hurricanes, to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water become scarce. … And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.”
Michael Mann, who directs Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center and is the creator of the “hockey-stick” graph, which illustrates the recent spike in global temperatures, has been the target of legal battles for years. He has been investigated by Penn after his email was hacked during so-called “Climategate” and in 2010 was accused of defrauding Virginia taxpayers while he was a faculty member at the University of Virginia. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli demanded access to every document relating to his research during that time. Mann has never been convicted of any wrongdoing and now, Cuccinelli has been defeated in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race. Climate denial was a central issue in the race with fossil fuel companies backing Cuccinelli, while climate activists spent millions for Terry McAullife. Cuccinelli’s “witch hunt” after Mann was held up as an example of Cuccinelli prioritizing his own radically conservative agenda over the concerns of his constituents. McAuliffe said that “the fact that UVA was forced to spend $600,000 to defend itself from its own Attorney General is outrageous.”
The Los Angeles Times announced in 2013 that it will no longer publish letters from climate change deniers.
“Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published,” wrote letters editor Paul Thornton explaining his decision. “Saying ‘there’s no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”
Climate change deniers have long argued that the extent of human-made global warming has been wildly exaggerated in order to advance an agenda that includes more government control and decried the decision by the LA Times as taking a political side. The LA Times has chosen to listen to the 97 percent of scientists who believe that climate change is happening and that it is in large part the result of human actions. Many in the scientific community applauded the decision by the LA Times, hoping the decision would give other outlets the courage to stop “appeasing the climate change denial noise machine.” The Times was followed by PopularScience’s decision to shut off its comments and Reddit’s science forum prohibiting posts and comments by people who deny the realities of human-made climate change.
On Nov. 13, 2013, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) went to the floor of the Senate for the 50th time in 50 weeks to push for congressional action to address climate change.
“We are a great country, but not when we’re lying and denying what’s real,” he said. “The atmosphere is warming; ice is melting; seas are warming, rising, and acidifying. It is time for the misleading fantasies to end.”
Whitehouse started delivering the speeches in April 2012 to counteract the Senate’s practical avoidance of the issue. While the Senator often addresses a nearly empty Senate floor, he is determined to not settle for silence on this huge issue and will keep on talking, hoping that more people will soon listen.
Not many top novelists have tackled climate change as subject matter, despite the wide variety of apocalyptic and inspiring plot lines it offers. In her 2013 novel Flight Behavior, Kingsolver does just this — using the story of a restless young mother in rural Tennessee to shed new light on the story of a planet out of balance. Kingsolver’s protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, discovers a colony of monarch butterflies on her family’s property. Soon these butterflies, mysteriously far from their ancient migration route have caught the attention of scientists, tourists, activists, and journalists around the world — all of whom collide in rural Tennessee, understanding nothing about each other and ready to fight about what has caused the butterflies to wander so far. The novel dives deep into how identity determines people’s willingness or refusal to accept the reality of climate change, and offers readers exhausted by scientific studies and government reports a fresh and entertaining way to consider the changing climate and society’s response.
For the third year running, Massachusetts won the coveted top spot on the annual energy efficiency state scorecard released every year by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Massachusetts has held onto its lead due in large part to the continued implementation and growth of the programs put in place in 2008 with the passage of the Green Communities Act. This landmark law required utilities to increase investment in energy efficiency measures, mandated the design and implementation of three-year energy efficiency plans for gas and electric utilities, required that 15 percent of electricity be supplied by new renewable power facilities by 2020, established a pilot program for utilities to enter into long-term contracts with renewable energy developers and encouraged green building design through updated codes, training, and assistance.
Al Jazeera America
On its first day on air, Al Jazeera America devoted a full half-hour to an expert panel discussing climate change. The panel included Michael Mann from Penn State University, Heidi Cullen from Climate Central, and Klaus Jacob from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia. This first-day coverage is nearly half as much time as all network news programs gave climate change during all of 2012, and as Media Matters noted, “all while avoiding common pitfalls like providing false balance to those that deny the science and leaving the crisis’ manmade origins ambiguous.”
In his 2010 Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, Josh Fox took his banjo, camera, and dark sense of humor on a road trip to explore the effects of the natural gas boom. In doing so, he galvanized the U.S. anti-fracking movement and made flaming tap water a symbol of the fight. In 2013, Fox continued his crusade to educate Americans about what is happening on their public lands and in their backyards with the release of his sequel, Gasland 2. His latest documentary focuses special attention on industry’s efforts to silence protesters and examines the potentially corrupting influence of industry on politicians and regulators.
“I felt like I could see it: a horizontal well bore, drilled down into the earth, snaking underneath the Congress, shooting money up through the chamber at such high pressure that it blew the top off of our democracy,” Fox narrates in Gasland 2. “Another layer of contamination due to fracking, not the water, not the air, but our government.”
After 12 years as mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg is now counting down his last days in office, while commentators and ordinary New Yorkers tally up his achievements and controversies, and attempt to summarize his legacy. One thing is for sure, Bloomberg will leave the nation’s largest city more sustainable and more prepared to meet the future challenges of climate change. In 2007, Bloomberg released PlaNYC, a sweeping sustainable program including 127 initiatives that would transform New York into a greener city and a leader in the fight against climate change. The program helped restore wetlands, create new open space, and create miles of new bike lanes. It also significantly reduced pollution in the city. Post-Sandy, Bloomberg has pledged $20 billion to rebuild New York City to be a more resilient, climate ready metropolis.
John Kerry has been beloved by the environmentally minded for decades. And unlike some, he hasn’t abandoned his green record as he has risen in the political world. Now as secretary of state, Kerry still speaks frankly about the global threat of climate change. Climate was a major talking point during Kerry’s trip to India earlier this year. And touring the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan last week, Kerry called the storm a warning of extreme weather in a warming world as he pledged more U.S. support to the Philippines.
Bill McKibben used to be a mild-mannered journalist. Today, he is the leader of one of the biggest grassroots environmental movements in decades. In 2007, McKibben and a group of graduates from Middlebury College founded the organization 350.org. The name refers to scientist James Hansen’s quantification of the maximum concentration of carbon dioxide (350 parts per million) the atmosphere can contain while still offering “a safe operating space for humanity.” McKibben’s “Do The Math” tour this year has taken his message on the road. Speaking at sold-out venues across the country, McKibben does the math for his audiences — we can only emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2 degrees C of warming. That’s just a tiny fraction of the 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide that will be emitted if corporations bring to market what they have in their reserves.
Full disclosure: Bill McKibben is a member of the Grist board of directors.