2015 in Review: The Year Environmental and Climate Issues Left Their Silos
Journalists are starting to connect more dots: population and biodiversity, terrorism and climate, food security and ocean health
Call it the grand convergence: Coverage of environmental issues, especially climate change, jumped traditional boundaries to pick up broader—and slightly ominous—geopolitical and health angles.
At the successful Paris climate talks in December, President Obama and other world leaders tied terrorism to human-induced bouts of erratic and severe weather. Drought and water crises, they said, exacerbated civil distress in Syria and the Middle East.
In July, Pope Francis issued a forceful encyclical, or church teaching, calling on all of humanity to rethink economics and lifestyles to better foster care and concern for our "common home."
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at Old Dominion University in November, pointed out the serious "social and political consequences that stem from crop failures, water shortages, famine, outbreaks of epidemic disease."
Reporters, in some ways, have responded: The encyclical was widely covered – a search of Environmental Health News' aggregated archives for "Pope Francis encyclical" shows 440 news reports, editorials and opinion pieces published this year. Republicans and pundits latched on to Obama's climate/terrorism connection: almost 180 pieces in our archives mention both "climate" and "terrorism."
EHN.org's archives are not meant to be an exhaustive survey of reporting, but rather a selective sampling of the day's news and opinion. Our search methodology has changed over the years; nevertheless we picked up more than 30,000 environmentally themed news stories, editorials and opinions.
Scientists, too, are connecting more dots among different environmental topics. In July and November, Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich and University of California, Berkeley, Professor John Harte published two pieces on food security and the intertwined nature of ecological and social systems.
"An enormous number of conditions have to be met if humankind is to thrive sustainably," Ehrlich and Harte wrote in the International Journal of Environmental Studies this summer.
They added: "The basic dilemma facing humanity is how to solve enough of these problems, many if not most acting synergistically, to avoid a disastrous decline in general health, cognitive ability, and social order."
That thinking isn't new, of course—Harte published a paper in 1996 on synergies in environmental degradation. But the trend for years was for media and popular culture—even science itself—to distill issues down to one simplified meme or theme: Gun control, economics, education, health. The environment has been no different.
"I felt for a decade or more that I was just talking to the wind," Harte said. "When we talk about economics, education, health, there tends to be an absence of what I would call 'systemic thinking' ... the tendency is for each person to have one hobby horse—one pet, favored thing. They don't look at the system."
Even the most recent assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in late 2013 and early 2014, fell short, Harte suggested. The many synergies associated with climate change didn't get much detail, he said.
Obama has made climate change a signature issue of his last years in office, bringing up the issue in myriad settings. Secretary of State Kerry took a tour this fall of the strategic Naval Station Norfolk, which supports the U.S. Atlantic fleet—75 ships, 134 aircraft and the largest concentration of U.S. Navy forces in the world. Military brass, Rolling Stone reported earlier this year, say the base might be rendered unusable in 25 to 50 years due to rising seas.
Talking later in the day at Old Dominion, Kerry connected some dots.
"The bottom line is that the impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress," Kerry said. "And because the world is so extraordinarily interconnected today – economically, technologically, militarily, in every way imaginable – instability anywhere can be a threat to stability everywhere."
Such arguments, Harte said, are becoming "more and more acceptable" even though scientists have known about the issue for decades.
"Bill Clinton was a very smart guy," Harte added. "But he wasn't saying stuff like that."
More broadly, environmental coverage in 2015 jumped from past years, especially on climate change.
Since 2000, media analysts at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have tracked climate coverage in news reports published by five national newspapers—The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and USA Today.
Coverage this year climbed to levels not seen since December 2009, when world leaders last tried to hammer out a climate accord, in Copenhagen.