It is fair to say that the Paris accord on climate change ranks as the No. 1 environmental story of 2015 in the minds of year-in-review list makers with a focus on environment, climate or both.
Top-story lists came out in great profusion over the last several days in enviro-minded journalism venues, ranging from Grist to the Weather Channel to Earth Island Journal, and the COP21 agreement was at or near the top of their lists as well as others at Mongabay, Sierra magazine, the Huffington Post and the UK Guardian.
Other high-ranking stories that made three or more of those lists:
- The ongoing severity of drought, and unusual patterns of wildfire, across North America, discussed here last July.
- President Barack Obama’s decision in November to deny permits for the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry additional crude oil from the Canadian tar stands to U.S. refineries.
- Revelations of how ExxonMobil’s corporate strategy shifted from leadership in research on global warming to aggressive disputation of the scientific consensus it had helped to form.
- Shell Oil’s abandonment, at least for now, of plans to sink more offshore wells in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.
Stories that made two of the lists:
- The papal encyclical in which Pope Francis called for action on global warming, and greater environmental stewardship generally, last May.
- The virtual certainty that 2015 will rank as the hottest year on record, once all the numbers have been crunched.
- Revelations that Volkswagen and other automakers had systematically cheated on emissions testing of diesel-engine cars.
- Canadian voters’ decision to end a decade of Conservative rule in Ottawa by electing a new Liberal government and, in the words of Sierra, “overthrowing the petro-state.”
- Obama’s creation of new national monuments in Colorado, California and Nevada, as well as marine reserves covering more than a million square miles of ocean.
- Finalization of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan of cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. electric-power sector.
The narrowness of overlap in these lists intrigued me at first, until I considered the diversity of the list makers and their outlets.
There’s less groupthink in U.S. journalism than there used to be, and still less in this sector than in some others, like sports or business or electoral politics.
Which is a good thing – it keeps the coverage lively, even when the assignment is as potentially deadly dull as the year-in-review list. (Lead on the offering from the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Watchdog Earth: “Another day, another dollar. Another year, another continuing flow of environment stories.” Zzzzz.)
This year, the most interesting green-tinted lists I came across were the work of writers who chose to narrow the focus in some innovative, appealing way. A sampling of favorites:
- Smithsonian magazine’s Top Nine Ocean Stories That Had us Talking in 2015, a roundup on discoveries of new species, new behaviors and new threats in a portion of our planet that is still less well understood than the moon. Also, some new hope for conservation, spurred by the new U.S. marine sanctuaries and the new papal leadership mentioned above.
- Nature’s feature on Ten people who mattered this year in the realms of natural science, from “climate guardian” Christiana Figueres to genome archeologist David Reich to biological synthesizer Christina Smolke.
- Top 10 Weirdest Animal Stories of 2015, chosen by editors at National Geographic. These run the gamut from discovery that the Ili pika, which some feel resembles a teddy bear, is not extinct after all, to new species of dancing peacock spiders, to an incident of necrophilia involving tegu lizards (that last item is OK for workplace viewing, but if your kids see it, you may have some explaining to do).
- Scientific American’s Ten Conservation Headlines That Defined 2015, John R. Platt’s list drawn from Extinction Countdown blogs about wildlife declines written by, well, John R. Platt, but so what – the posts are both important and interesting. A case in point is headlined, Sexually Deceptive Orchid Seeks Specialty Pollinator – where in the personals do you schedule that one?
- A Best of 2015 list of great magazine pieces from Longreads, only one of which was on my own list last week. Another list of long reads on environmental matters, selected by Kiera Butler, is available over at Mother Jones.
- Also from Mother Jones, The 7 Biggest Food Stories of 2015, by Tom Philpott. Yes, of course Chipotle’s troubles with E. coli and novovirus led the list, but take a look at the pieces on water pollution from Midwestern corn and soybean farms, and the intriguing evidence about signs that Americans are beginning to eat less junk food – and not only at Chipotle.
- Last but not least, from the New York Times science staff, Science News That Stuck With Us in 2015. The lead item is about new discoveries concerning the former planet Pluto, of course, but more than half the items are about issues right here on planet Earth: endangered chimpanzees, new bilateral conservation efforts in the reaches of ocean shared by the U.S. and Cuba, Iceland’s advanced program of underground carbon sequestration, and more.
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Look-ahead lists weren’t nearly as plentiful, alas, but I ran across one especially provocative example thanks to our local publication Ensia and writer Mary Hoff.
Her piece, “Top Trends Conservationists Should Be Paying Attention To – But Aren’t,” summarized (and digested) a feature written by two dozen scientists for the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, discussing future opportunities in artificial superintelligence, advanced electricity storage, using honeybees to deliver beneficial chemicals to crops (a good idea) and creating artificial glaciers to store irrigation water (maybe not so hot).
(And the full feature is available on an open-access basis here.)