Our Earth Day series started with the 1970s and rounds out as we make our way toward the most recent decade – the 2010s.
The remarkable rise of social media defined this decade. Our Facebook and Twitter profiles enable us to connect, share ideas, argue, and organize in ways that no one could have predicted.
The consequences have been both glorious and dangerous. The power of social media to reach the masses fueled transformative movements, like the Arab Spring and a wave of youth climate protests.
But the same platforms that have connected us have also polarized us, fueling the rise of left and right-wing populism and anti-establishment sentiment, exemplified by Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street on one side and Brexit and the Tea Party movement on the other.
These movements mirrored a populist electoral wave, with Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson among others occupying key positions in many of the world’s most influential governments.
The 2010s exemplified the rise of climate action at both local and national levels (mostly local in the case of the United States) with the Paris Agreement, increased adoption of renewable energy, and the launch of a global movement of young people fighting for the planet’s future.
Table of Contents
2010: Deepwater Horizon oil spill
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was drilling off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, when a methane gas leak caused it to explode in a mess of flames visible from 40 miles away. The explosion killed 11 people working on the scene.
Two days later, the fire raged on as the rig platform sank, leaving 200 million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf. 4.9 million barrels full of oil spread over thousands of miles of coastal habitat from Louisiana to Florida, making Deepwater Horizon the largest marine oil spill in history. Deepwater killed over 8,000 animals; among them were fish, dolphins, turtles, and over one million birds.
It took many years for any company to assume responsibility for this disaster. In 2014, US District Court Judge Carl Barbier ruled that BP deserved 67% of the blame, asserting that the company was guilty of “gross negligence and willful misconduct” under the Clean Water Act (CWA). BP estimated that it owed victims $7.8 billion, but it is nearly impossible to appropriately calculate the value lost from irreversible environmental damage.
Earlier this week, we posted a reflection on the impact and implications of Deepwater 10 years later. Needless to say, the decade didn’t open up with a lot of hope for environmental action. The decade still gives reasons to have hope though.
2010: Maryland Establishes B-Corps
Maryland was the first state to establish benefit corporations, or B-Corps. The rise of B-Corps in the 2010s correlates with consumers increasingly valuing businesses that prioritize social good. Nearly 7 in 10 millennials actively consider a businesses’ values when making purchasing decisions.
Designation as a B-Corps requires businesses to consider the environmental and social repercussions of their decisions. It also protects corporate boards from any legal jeopardy from prioritizing purpose over the bottom line: financial profit. It’s kind of sad that they need protections to justify caring for the Earth, but at least someone’s doing it. With the coronavirus currently ravaging the world, there is a great opportunity to continue to champion new business models that value compassion and sustainability.
2011: Fukuchima Disaster
On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced a jolt. As one tectonic plate slipped under another, a magnitude 9.0 undersea megathrust earthquake resulted, the fourth most powerful earthquake since record-keeping began around 1900. The quake generated 40-meter tsunami waves and was so forceful that it increased Earth’s rotational speed!
Tsunami waves slammed into the Fukuchima Daiichi nuclear plant, causing the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Much like Chernobyl, later investigations found that human error was the primary cause of the accident. The earthquake and ensuing nuclear accident had direct impacts in Japan, but also impacted worldwide nuclear development. In response, Germany accelerated its plans to close its remaining nuclear reactors and phase the rest out by 2022.
This week, as part of our Earth Week series, we’ve highlighted three nuclear disasters that led to a growing distrust of nuclear power: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukuchima. As we transition to powering our world with clean and renewable energy, we can only wonder how the energy mix might have looked if these disasters had never happened.
2012: Keystone XL Pipeline Protests
The Keystone pipeline became a household name when a broad coalition of activists rallied in opposition to a plan for its expansion. The plan, the fourth phase of the pipeline’s construction, is known as Keystone XL.
In his 2008 election bid, President Obama shared his desire to lead “ the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.” When Obama was running for reelection in 2012, activists endeavored to hold him accountable to this campaign promise. About 50,000 protesters attended a rally to pressure President Obama to reject the permit for Keystone XL.
In 2015, Obama officially rejected the permit for the pipeline, stating that the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was at odds with the United States’ “global leadership on climate change.” He also expressed concern over the extent to which the fight was politicized by both political parties. For Democrats, rejecting the pipeline was necessary to justify serious action to avoid the climate crisis. Whereas Republicans fought for the pipeline’s construction, touting the need for energy independence. For many, the pipeline remains an enduring symbol of the battle for the future of our planet.
In his first two weeks in office, President Trump undermined years of protest and approved the pipeline’s permit. Construction in Montana began earlier this month, until a recent court decision halted its progress with mandates to assess the impacts on the Endangered Species Act. Let’s see where this goes.
2012: Hurricane Sandy
October in the Northeast typically means leaf peeping, apple picking, and sweater season. In late October 2012, things weren’t so pleasant as Hurricane Sandy approached the Eastern Seaboard. When the tropical storm first hit southern New Jersey on October 29th, forecasters expected mild impacts.
But Sandy was far from mild. It tore through 24 states and all of the Eastern Seaboard. The so-called superstorm killed at least 147 people in the U.S., cut power from eight million homes and businesses, and caused over $70 billion in damages, making it the second most costly tropical cyclone after Hurricane Katrina.
Warming waters increase the likelihood of tropical storms, magnifying the risk for areas like the Northeast, where tens of millions of people live perilously close to the water’s edge. Additionally, rising sea levels exacerbate the surges and flooding caused by major storms, compounding the vulnerability to damage. The coastal United States must continue to build their resilience and invest in mitigation and adaptation strategies to prepare for the inevitability of future disasters.
2015: Senator Inhofe Tries to Start a Snowball Fight in Congress
Once upon a time, an old man threw a snowball during a presentation. The year was 2015, the old man was actually a U.S. Senator, and the presentation was a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Yes, this happened! Let’s explain.
Washington D.C. experienced a cold wave in late February 2015. On February 26th, Senator James Inhofe, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, sensed a perfect opportunity to publicize his skepticism of climate science. The most prominent climate change denier in the Senate had a platform to promote his misinformed views. And boy, did he use it.
Inhofe carried a snowball wrapped in a plastic bag (how symbolic!) to the floor of the U.S. Senate, where he argued that climate change is a hoax.
“You know what this is?’” asked Inhofe. “It’s a snowball, from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable.”
Upon concluding his remarks, Inhofe threw his snowball to a congressional aide.
We don’t have to tell you that the existence of snow and cold weather doesn’t disprove climate change. But time and time again, our political representatives prioritize their own interests over fact and over the interests of their own constituents. Inhofe alone has received over two million dollars in donations from fossil fuel interests as a congressman.
2015: Paris Climate Accords
The Paris Agreement brought nations together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep warming below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5oC. In an unprecedented process, each country submitted a personal goal to reduce their emissions levels, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). However, the UN Emissions Gap report highlights how the current NDC commitments are grossly insufficient to keep warming below 2°C.
In 2017, soon after entering office, President Trump announced his decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, pointing to his skepticism that other countries would hold up their end of the bargain. Two weeks ago, we wrote about some of Trump’s recent decisions that will adversely affect the environment. Perhaps none will have a greater impact than the United States (social) distancing itself from the most important climate change agreement ever created.
2018: Young People Speak Out
50 years ago, 20 million Americans took to the streets on Earth Day to fight for the planet.
A parallel is emerging today.
Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old Swedish climate activist, sparked a global movement when she posted a photo of herself protesting outside the Swedish Parliament to Twitter. She skipped school on Fridays to push the government to take a stronger response to climate change. Soon after, millions of students followed suit, skipping school and walking out of class, in a response that came to be known as Fridays for Future. Greta found an ally in the Sunrise Movement, a group of young activists committed to elevating climate change to the front of the political agenda in the United States.
Young people feel a strong sense of moral authority on the topic of climate change. Although Greta is only 16, her message and the message of other young climate activists is credible. After all, it is today’s youth that will inherit the planet, shaped daily by decisions made by today’s governments. Decisions made today will impact the lives of your grandchildren’s grandchildren.
“Maybe you are simply not mature enough to tell it like it is,” Thunberg says to the French National Assembly in Paris. “Even that burden you leave to us children.”
2019: Green New Deal Introduced
The Green New Deal (GND) resolution, introduced by Senator Edward Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is more than a climate policy platform. In addition to decarbonizing the electricity sector in the next 10 years (by reshaping the electricity, agriculture, and transportation sectors), the plan emphasizes creating clean energy jobs and delivering fair wages, along with several other key elements of a progressive agenda, such as universal healthcare/Medicare for All.
In the words of one of the authors of the Green New Deal, Rhianna Gunn-Wright, it addresses the “twin crises of climate change and income inequality.” Where the Green New Deal lacks in policy detail, it doubles down on its strong commitment to reducing racial and economic inequity by investing in communities that have historically borne the brunt of the damages of the fossil fuel economy.
Nathaniel Rich, author of “Losing Earth,” eloquently captures the importance of the Green New Deal in a New York Times Op-Ed:
“The Green New Deal may be short on policy detail, but it does establish the foundation of a moral doctrine: The conviction that there can be no civil society without a stable climate, that the power of American workers has eroded even faster than our coastlines, that inequality increases with every fraction of a degree of warming. It declares that the working class, women, people of color, indigenous communities, migrants, people with disabilities and future generations are no less deserving of a survivable future than the wealthiest members of the wealthiest nation.”
This is a message that resonates strongly with the American public. The timing of the resolution for a Green New Deal’s release and the associated enthusiasm brought climate change to the forefront of the Democratic Primary debates. CNN even held its first ever climate town hall, 7 hours dedicated to grilling the candidates on their climate agendas. The crowded field of Democratic candidates also included 5 Green New Deal co-sponsors (Sanders, Warren, Gillibrand, Harris and Klobuchar) and 15 supporters. The emphasis on climate change is expected to continue into the general election, as activists push Biden to prioritize climate change and contrast his agenda with Trump’s avid climate denialism.
2019: It’s getting VERY hot in here
Unfortunately, 2019 was the year of putting out fires, or at least trying to. Bushfires in Australia raged for several months, burning over 12 million acres of land and destroying 1,000 homes, making them the most destructive fires since 1974.
Across the Pacific, California wildfires displaced thousands of people from their homes, burned hundreds of thousands of acres, and left California’s economy reeling with $80 billion in losses. To prevent further fire damage, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), a local utility company, turned out the lights on 3 million people for nearly a full week. This is the same utility that was responsible for the faulty transmission line that caused the 2018 Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive fire.
Meanwhile, the Amazon experienced a whopping 80,000 forest fires in 2019. That’s 20,000 more than the previous year. Many of the fires were caused by intentional deforestation and land clearing, which Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro emboldened by opening up the rainforest to industrial and agricultural use. The Amazon is essential to the fight against climate change, due to the fact that it absorbs about 5% of the world’s annual carbon emissions.It remains unclear if enough is being done to protect the vital rainforest and ensure communities across the world are resilient and prepared to adapt to fires.
As the decade concluded, climate action reached a fever pitch, spurred both by increasing awareness of environmental threats and the emergence of young activists like Greta Thunberg. Four months into a new decade, we can only hope that our society will build upon the daring work of the youth climate movement to make the 2020s the decade where we gained Earth back.