By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

(Image: NASA)

If you’re wondering what to worry about in the coming year, look no further than the eco-landscape.

Climate change, species extinctions, ocean acidification, forestry losses, soil erosion and air pollution. We humans, now 7 billion strong, are pushing the planet hard, creating a brew of intractable environmental issues that threaten our way of life, and ultimately our survival.

Grim? It doesn’t get much more so.

There were bright moments in 2011. A sampling:

  • Hundreds of Americans protested the Keystone tar sands pipeline, forcing a review and dialogue about the risks it poses, especially to water supplies. This may be the beginning of an important dialogue about how much environmental damage people are willing to countenance to maintain oil supplies, as well as how to protect dwindling drinking water aquifers.
  • New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $50 million to Sierra Club to fight coal pollution.
  • The Obama administration proposed strong new gas mileage standards, with the US auto industry fully on board.
  • The EPA managed to cough out long-awaited rules clamping down on mercury and toxic emissions from power plants.
  • Energy efficient light bulbs, of all things, survived an attack by Congressional representatives trying to score political points about government regulation. The 2007 law requiring retailers to sell more efficient bulbs remains on the books, even though the champions of the old-style Edison light bulb were able to strip funding for enforcing it.

Overseas, China continued to forge ahead with solar power and high speed rail, and Germany announced it would move off of nuclear power over the next decade after watching Japan struggle with the meltdown at Fukushima.

Across the globe, the Occupy movement (and before that the Arab Spring) reminded people to speak up for what they want, or perhaps more importantly, that regular folks want many of the same things: Fairness and a more equitable distribution of resources. These themes bode well for locavore, Slow Food, Slow Money, sustainability and wilderness conservation efforts – which are all about using resources more wisely for the benefit of all.

But while Occupy was the social phenomenon of the year, climate change made a spectacular bid for attention on the environmental front, unleashing wickedly hot temperatures in 2011. Virtually every corner of the US broiled at some point in the summer and reeled from extreme weather events, ranging from ultra-heavy snow storms in the Northeast to flooding in the Midwest and South.

Brutal wildfires seared the Southwest and the earth cracked in parts of Texas and Oklahoma, which suffered their worst droughts since record keeping began in 1895.

The NRDC cataloged the catastrophes on its Extreme Weather Map, noting that the 14 worst weather disasters cost the nation $53 billion – an implicit suggestion that spending money to mitigate or adapt to climate change would not be money wasted.

Climate Change — The biggest environmental story of 2011

Climate change delivered the second summer ever in the US and the year-end report is likely to confirm 2011 as the second hottest year overall (European nations are already declaring that 2011 the second hottest year on record), making this phenomenon the top environmental story of  2011 — and the most important ecological issue facing 2012.

Like a rogue nation with a nuclear weapon (a good 2011 topic for international affairs bloggers) global warming  imperils everything.

But oddly, despite massive scientific evidence, people continue to dismiss or sidestep this elephant in the room.

US presidential candidates deny it. Diplomats waver on it. The Durban climate talks stumble on picayune points.

And the Arctic continues its drip, drip, drip.

We can’t know for certain how climate change will play out. But that’s hardly an excuse for sitting on the bench. We have authoritative predictive models that give us an idea of best-case and worst-case scenarios. A strong strategy now could mean diverting disaster.

We recently learned that carbon emissions are rising faster than ever and yet so many leaders seem impervious to this news.

With notable exceptions. Those vehicle mileage standards have been in the works for years, representing a legion of people working to cut carbon emissions.

The latest standards, which the Obama Administration released a month ago, will require that the US fleet of cars and trucks get an average of 40 miles per gallon by model year 2021 and nearly 50 mpg by 2025.

These changes are expected to cut carbon emissions by 6 billion tons over that period – the equivalent to an entire year’s worth of US emissions from all sources — and cut oil consumption by an impressive 2.2 million barrels a day. (The US consumes about 19 million a day.)

The auto industry has become a strong ally in this effort, eager to revive its industry with new high mileage models that help strengthen US energy security. Win-win.

Builders, clean energy industries and cities are ready to join in the program, because they’ll make or save money with new smart designs and renewable power.

We need only to survey the 2011 weather map to know we need to do even more.

The historic drought in Texas alone cost at least $5 billion in lost livestock and crops. Organic cotton farmers gave up in despair midway through the season. Cattle ranchers who couldn’t afford to import hay from the rain-soaked Midwest, sold their stock early at auction.

Meanwhile, the US committed only to baby steps with green energy. Solar, wind and geothermal power, combined with energy efficient buildings, can dramatically reduce carbon pollution. But Congress, focused on the rising deficit, failed to renew incentives for renewable energy this year, continuing a pattern of stops and starts that has confounded the leaders of those industries.

What can one person do?

Each and every person in the US especially can take steps that have real impact: Use public transportation; walk, ride a bike or ride share.  Buy a high mileage car or switch to green power if it’s offered by your electric provider; and eat less meat, if that appeals to you, it uses a lot of energy and may help your heart.

Let your Congressional representatives know you care. Polls show that a high percentage of the public is worried about climate change, a message that has failed to get through to some in Congress —  like those who want to squash more efficient light bulbs.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network