December Torched Our Year in Review
Some real talk here: We had our end-of-year wrap up nearly ready to publish on Friday, December 17.
It was telling the story of how the year in climate – if you had to summarize it in five words or less – would go something like “Critical progress, but not enough.”
After all, the big, headline-grabbing breakthroughs didn’t come. Not quite or – we thought – not yet. Globally, the Now-or-Never climate conference at COP 26 became the Not Quite climate conference, with a final agreement that technically keeps the Paris Agreement’s goal of holding warming to 1.5 degrees within reach – but offers no clear path to get there.
In the US, the historic Build Back Better Act to fight rising temperatures and rising inequality was somewhere in legislative limbo, passed by the House but still waiting final negotiations, primarily with a lone-but-key holdout, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Then, of course, on Sunday, Senator Manchin went on Fox News to announce he wouldn’t support the bill. Full stop.
And just like that, the story of climate action in 2021 looked a whole lot different.
We get a good bit of criticism (a lot of it right on target) for focusing so heavily on US climate policy and activism. But in this case, what the world’s largest economy and second-largest polluter does for climate policy matters greatly for the overall effort to hold warming to 1.5 degrees. Both in terms of reducing its own (enormous) slice of the global emissions pie and – through its market share and influence – helping accelerate – or not – energy transition on a global scale.
Recent analysis shows what a gut check suggests, with local and business action being critical to the US getting in sight of its goal of reducing emissions 50–52% by 2030, but federal policy being critical to getting over the line.
So yeah, we’re not going to lie: the news hit like a sucker punch. And after almost a full year of activists organizing, meeting with members of Congress, writing letters to the editor, and on and on and on to get this bill into shape and passed, it hurt.
But here’s the thing: The fight’s not over. Not by a long shot (more on that later). And even as the movement here in the US works to pick itself up off the floor, there were wins and stories throughout the year that should give all of us hope for the year ahead.
The Climate Fight Becomes a Fight for Equity and Justice
The core injustice of the fossil fuel economy and the climate devastation it creates – where rich and largely white countries and communities pollute while poorer nations and people of color pay the price – is nothing new. Environmental justice groups, voices like Dr. Robert Bullard and Catherine Coleman Flowers, and youth activists have been screaming it from the rooftops for years and even decades.
But 2021 might just be the year that the mainstream climate movement and government leaders actually listened and began to put equity and justice at the heart of the solutions we’re fighting for.
As many activists will tell you, it’s one thing to acknowledge the injustice of fossil fuel pollution and climate change. It’s another to actually bring those most deeply affected – often people of color and frontline communities – and who know the issues through their own lives into leadership and decision-making roles on what we do about them.
We saw the beginning of this sea change in the US with the White House forming the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, bringing in rock star leaders of all ages and backgrounds with decades of experience on the front lines to shape the federal fight for environmental justice and climate solutions.
Critically, we also saw this same imperative at work in the White House’s Justice40 commitment, which mandated that 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate action and clean energy, among other areas, go to frontline communities hardest hit by climate impacts. That’s real money that will make a real difference.
It wasn’t just the US either. At COP 26, one of the overriding themes of demands both in the streets and in negotiations was for justice. As just one example of many, island nations like Tuvalu are already seeing seas swallow their coastlines thanks to wealthy nations polluting and called for a “loss and damage” mechanism to pay for the suffering they’ve already encountered and funding to help them adapt to a warming world.
No surprise, wealthy nations and groups like the US and EU balked. But this issue isn’t going anywhere, and activists will be back at next year’s COP 27 in Cairo to push the Global North to face its moral responsibility and provide developing nations with the finance they need to survive and thrive.
Activists Fight Fossil Fuel Pollution and Win
One of the most exciting stories of 2021 was how communities forced for years to live with fossil fuel pollution took on polluters and won.
In the US, activists with Rise St. James and other groups in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley forced a two-year pause on Formosa Plastics developing a new facility that would pump all kinds of dangerous chemicals into the air, enabling a proper environmental review of the project.
In Memphis, activists galvanized community opposition to the Byhalia Pipeline that would have run right through Black-majority South Memphis neighborhoods, putting both residents and the entire city’s aquifer at risk. Through their efforts, the fight became a national fight for environmental justice, with prominent voices from Danny Glover to Jane Fonda to former Vice President Al Gore calling for the City Council to block the project.
It worked, with the companies behind the project ultimately pulling out.
In Indonesia, a court ruled in that President Widodo and other officials were negligent in protecting Jakarta residents from the air pollution that cuts life expectancy as much as 5.5 years, after residents brought suit in 2019.
Then in Scotland, activists pushed Shell to pull out of the controversial Cambo oil field off the Shetland Islands, pointing out that new development is incompatible with the UK’s goals of reducing emissions.
The list goes on in 2021, but the trendline is that more and more around the world, people are standing up to fight fossil fuels – and winning big.
Building Back Better in 2022
As for Build Back Better, the death notices were premature. The president and Congressional leaders are committed to getting a deal done and with an overwhelming majority of Americans and even coal miners supporting the bill, we’ll be fighting all the way until this is passed. There’s too much on the line. For our families. For our country. For our planet.
We hope to see you with us.