2010 was a disappointing year for environmentalists.
This was the year Congress was supposed to pass climate change legislation, but each and every time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed on the verge of pushing the bill forward, the effort fell short. In April, off the coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon explosion led to one of the worst environmental disasters in the country's history, and in the aftermath, neither President Barack Obama nor Congress has pushed for the sort of strong regulations that would rein in the oil industry and the risk it poses to coastal ecosystems.
Meanwhile, a newly invigorated natural gas industry has been plowing forward with a controversial drilling technique called hydrofracking. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has committed to studying the environmental impacts of the practice, it's unclear at this point how much leeway the industry will be given to use techniques that have contaminated water and air across the country. Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben had trouble convincing the president to take the small symbolic act of reinstalling a solar panel on the White House roof. And in November, the country elected a group of lawmakers who are skeptical that climate change even exists.
Hope springs eternal
But the news was not all bad, as Change.org's Jess Leber reports. In California, green-minded voters defeated a proposition that would have rolled back the state's ambitious climate law. Coal-fired power plants are closing in states like Oregon and Colorado, and mountaintop removal coal mining is losing its funding. And cities like New York, Washington D.C., Denver and Minneapolis made it easier for their inhabitants to use bikes as a primary mode of transportation.
"All over the world, activists are fighting in their states, towns and cities to do right by the environment," Leber writes. "They are also moving to pressure the corporate world. So while, given the results of Election Day in the U.S., progress in Congress will be an uphill battle, I'm confident there will be even more victories to report this time next year."
A year can be a long time. Consider, for instance, Steph Larsen's reflections on her farm's first year. "I feel like I've lived a decade in the last 12 months," Larsen writes in Grist. Last year, her pasture did not exist, and the farm buildings on her land had sat unused for years. But in the past 12 months, she's grown cherries and tomatoes and squash, kept chickens and hunted for their eggs, and raised livestock that later became her dinner.
Larsen's goals for her farm are modest: "to grow food for her household and community." It can be hard sometimes to see how individual choices like hers can make a difference while global leaders cannot agree on how to reduce carbon emissions and industry continues to exploit and pollute the environment. But as Winslow Myers, the author of Living Beyond War, writes at Truthout, "the cause-and-effect relationship between what I do personally in my daily life and those planet-wide challenges has become infinitely clearer" over the past 50 years:
Now we can see how the two are connected - between my diet and the effect of industrial agriculture on the land, between my energy consumption and global climate change, between the chemicals in my laundry detergent and the health of the oceans - and between my political commitments and the world-destroying weapons built with my tax dollars....the reality is that I am so deeply connected to the whole entity that I am responsible for it, answerable to it.
Local leaders step into the breach
It's true that individual decisions to turn down the heat, or eat local food, or bike instead of drive cannot turn back global warming. But in aggregate, they do make an impact. And although nationally and internationally, politicians are finding it difficult to create strong policies on climate change, that would reduce emissions, not all lawmakers are avoiding the issues. Franke James' visual essay on climate change at Yes! Magazine puts it like this: "Don't be fooled by the global leaders loafing. Local leaders and cities are making plans to adapt to climate change (because it's affecting them NOW!) "
And ultimately, these sorts of decisions on local and individual levels do send a signal to leaders that their constituents care about keeping the planet healthy, care about preserving our environmental resources. To that end, check out these ideas for individual action from the staff and readers of Mother Jones.
And next year? Leaders like Bill McKibben are working to create a global movement around climate change, a people-driven movement that will convince legislators and negotiators that it is incumbent upon them to act. Look for them to start making lots of noise in 2011.