As 2015 comes to a close, what environmental gains did we make, and what still needs to get done in the year ahead?
What Didn’t Get Done?
* Protect the coastal plain of America’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for polar bears, musk oxen, Arctic foxes and hundreds of species of birds. It’s also where the Porcupine Caribou go to birth their young. These wild lands have been in the sights of the oil industry for years, but thus far, the efforts of Alaska Wilderness League and many other environmental groups have helped keep oil drilling on the coastal plain at bay. President Obama has recommended that the region be designated as wilderness, which ensure it stays off limits to industrial development permanently. The next session of Congress should make that happen.
* Pass strong legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – Given the tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals that are loose in the environment, strengthening the Toxic Substances Control Act is of paramount importance. The Senate did pass a reform bill as 2015 was coming to a close. However, as Andy Igrjas of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families notes here, it did not go nearly far enough. On the plus side, the legislation lets EPA order companies to test a chemical, rather than go through a formal (and long) rulemaking process. It also helps protect many existing state laws, including those that are stronger than the federal law. On the other hand, it makes it harder for EPA to intercept a dangerous chemical when it enters the country as part of an imported product. It also prevents states from taking new actions against toxic chemicals if EPA is also assessing them, a measure that could delay needed health interventions for years. The House has already passed its own version of TSCA reform. The next step will be to mesh the two bills and come up with final legislation that hopefully is stronger than either the House or the Senate version. Read a more thorough analysis of the issue at SaferChemicals.org.
* Prevent mass animal extinction – The killing of Cecil the Lion in July 2015 spawned international outrage and helped highlight the threats animals worldwide face, not just from hunting, but from issues like overdevelopment and climate change as well. Fifty Democrats in the House of Representatives have asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lion as an endangered species, which would limit trophy hunting. But, that may be too little, too late. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that natural extinction rates are about one to five species per year. Now, “scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times” that rate, “with literally dozens going extinct every day,” a crisis caused almost entirely by humans. An astonishing “99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming.”
* Improve food safety – As 2015 comes to a close, Chipotle Restaurants are still under scrutiny for the E.coli outbreaks that have sickened over 50 people in their restaurants. But that’s just the tip of the food poisoned iceberg. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “One in six Americans will get sick from foodborne diseases.” “That amounts to nearly 50 million people, resulting in approximately 128,000 hospitalizations, and, tragically, 3,000 deaths,” says Consumer Reports. The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed to create a safer, healthier food supply. But, Congress hasn’t funded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with nearly enough money to implement the Act. Organizations ranging from the American Public Health Association to the Center for Science in the Public Interest to the Trust for America’s Health continue to urge both the House and the Senate to boost funding so FDA can “build the systems it needs to implement the law” and make our food supply truly safe.
What Did Get Done?
* Get international agreement to stop climate change – In a feat no one expected would happen, leaders of nearly 200 countries went to Paris and left with a plan in place to try to bring climate change to a halt. While most people agree that the plan doesn’t go far enough, and others criticize its mostly voluntary measures, it still cannot be denied that climate change finally became an international priority that many countries, including the United States, acknowledge they can no longer ignore.
* Cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline – After years of pressure from focused and motivated activists, President Obama finally canceled the Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline would have transported dirty tar sands oil from Canada across the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico for oil refining. Activists argued that the oil should stay in the ground rather than be burned as a way to combat climate change as well as air pollution. (This Care2 article highlights 5 ways the pipeline could make people sick.)
* Ban plastic microbeads – This is a big one! Pres. Obama signed into law a bill that will phase out plastic microbeads in face wash, toothpaste and shampoo. Manufacturing of these products must cease by July 1, 2017, and all sales of products on the shelf that contain the plastic pellets must end by July 1, 2018. The ban came after increasing research showed that micro-plastic does not biodegrade and is building up in the ocean at alarming rates. It followed the passage of a similar law in California.
* Convince furniture companies to ban the use of fire retardants – Furniture manufacturers have long treated their furniture with toxic flame retardant chemicals. The Natural Resources Defense Council called it a “stupid use of a chemical: they are ineffective in preventing furniture fires and are linked to serious health effects.” In 2015, Ashley Furniture, the largest manufacturer and retailer of furniture in the country, bowed to consumer demand and said it would ban toxic flame retardant chemicals in all of their furniture. Ethan Allen, Restoration Hardware and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams have all said their furiture is free of toxic flame retardants. Crate and Barrel, Room Board, and Williams-Sonoma, which includes Pottery Barn and West Elm, say they have mostly eliminated the chemicals from their products. IKEA and Wal-Mart have told their vendors to stop adding flame retardants to their furniture as well.
* Protect whales from military vessels – The U.S. Navy has had a deafening, blinding impact on whales – literally. Naval vessels use intense, high-volume and far-ranging sound waves to detect submarines and other objects beneath the earth’s surface. Because whales and dolphins “see” with their ears, the noise disrupts the ability of these animals to reproduce and thrive. In one documented case, 17 whales beached themselves and died, an action that was attributed to mid-frequency sonar emitted by the Navy. Happily, a federal court agreement reached between the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Navy will force the Navy to silence its sonar in areas around Southern California and Hawaii during certain periods of the year when marine mammal populations are most vulnerable. The agreement runs until the end of 2018, reports NRDC’s onearth.org, when the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service will issue neCecil environmental impact statements and authorizations regarding military exercises in sensitive water.
Activists, of course, made the difference in just about all of these victories, reports Moms Clean Air Force, who credits their Naptime Activism program for making it easy to sign petitions to elected officials. And, of course, all of the petitions circulated across Care2.com helped, as well.
For more good news about the Earth, stop by Grist.org.
What do you consider a major environmental victory for 2015? And what tops your agenda for 2016? Please share!