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1. A Breakthrough Climate Deal in Paris

Photo credit: iStock / TomasSereda
Photo credit: iStock / TomasSereda

Failure was not an option. After the diplomatic meltdown that occurred during the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, all of the parties going into December’s UN-sponsored climate negotiations in Paris—the wealthy countries, the poor countries, the island countries slipping into the sea, the activists—knew that some kind of deal was a must-have.

By the end of nearly two weeks of negotiations, the talks not only avoided outright failure, but exceeded expectations. The new global climate change agreement establishes a revised goal of keeping average global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” sets up a clear mechanism for countries’ greenhouse gas reductions to be revisited every five years and, for the first time, commits every nation-state on Earth—196 different entities—to do something to address this collective threat.

Big props are due to Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican chair of the UN Framework on Climate Change, who had the foresight to demand that all countries come to Paris with greenhouse gas reduction plans in hand. She’s been doing the hard work for years so that the final negotiations in Paris weren’t such a heavy lift.

High fives are also due to the French hosts, whose last-minute diplomatic brinksmanship helped clinch the deal. The U.S., the EU and dozens of smaller, poorer nations (the so-called “Ambition Coalition”) demonstrated impressive leadership by insisting on a revised temperature rise target. And of course the constellation of civil society groups active in Paris—the environmental orgs, the development and aid groups, the religious figures, the artists, the business leaders—played a crucial role in putting on pressure from below.

But I don’t want to sugar coat it. The agreement in many ways falls short of what we need to avoid catastrophic climate change. As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said on Democracy Now!: “If you want to point out what this agreement doesn’t do, get in line.”

So, yes, the agreement is insufficient. And it’s essential. The Paris agreement marks a real turning point in history. The era of climate inaction is over; the era of climate action has begun. The hard work of getting to a 100 percent clean energy economy starts now.

2. Obama Denies Keystone XL Pipeline Permit

Photo credit: J. Sierra / Sierra Club
Photo credit: J. Sierra / Sierra Club

Four years ago, most of Washington, DC’s “energy insiders” agreed that the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was a done deal. I’m embarrassed to say that, at the time, I agreed and wrote a callow editorial pointing out what seemed to me the strategic flaws in the Keystone campaign.

Though I eventually came around, I’ll admit to being short-sighted and I’m thrilled that the optimists proved the haters wrong.

Several massive grassroots mobilizations and hundreds of smaller rallies later, the fight over Keystone XL had become the environmental movement’s signature battle. In the end, greens won: In November, President Obama announced that he would not approve the pipeline.

The path to victory was in many ways as important as the victory itself. Throughout the Keystone XL campaign, green groups were more aggressive and visible than they had been in years. In August 2011, and allies staged the largest show of environmental civil disobedience since the height of the anti-nuclear movement, leading to more than a thousand arrests at the White House. In the fall of 2011, thousands of people encircled the White House. In 2013, greens organized the muscular Forward on Climate Rally and staged more White House arrests, including the Sierra Club’s first foray into civil disobedience in its history. In 2014, the strange bedfellows of the Cowboys and Indian Alliance set up camp on the National Mall. Along the way, Keystone XL became a political football and (though my bosses hate to hear me say this) a political symbol: a clear choice between continuing on our carbonated kamikaze mission or making a sharp turn toward the clean energy future. The long-running Keystone XL fight revealed an American environmental movement no longer willing to play it safe and eager to buck the conventional wisdom.

Cynics still quibble that even as Keystone became a cause celebre, hundreds of other oil and gas pipelines were constructed. True. And, at the same time, many of those faced stiff local and regional and even national opposition. That’s why the Keystone XL will victory will matter for years to come. Fossil fuel infrastructure projects are no longer inevitable; at the very least they won’t go forward without a fight. Whether it’s an oil refinery expansion, a proposed coal port, increased crude-by-rail shipments or coal leases on public lands, there will be no more done deals.

3. Laudato Si’

Photo credit: iStock
Photo credit: iStock

Since the turn of the century, a growing number of religious leaders have made bold statements linking environmental protection to their faiths. In 2002, Pope John Paul II and Bartholomew I, Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, issued a joint “declaration of environmental ethics.” Here in the U.S., the Evangelical Environmental Network has been working steadily to affirm that, in its words, “creation care is a matter of Life.” A group of imams have issued an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change.

But few faith-based statements on the environment have demonstrated the moral force—or sweeping vision—of Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’ (or, Praise Be to You). Released in June, Francis’ 184-page message laid out a stinging condemnation of industrial society’s reckless destruction of natural systems and articulated a radical ideal of our ethical responsibilities toward the rest of life on Earth.

Francis bemoans the destruction of our “common home” and pins the blame on “a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.” He mourns the steady extinction of species: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.” He makes a thinly veiled swipe at corporate capitalism: “The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.” And he makes a clear connection between environmental sustainability and global social justice: “Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south.”

Predictably, some American conservatives (including some Catholics) dismissed Francis’ lengthy homily. But the Pope’s ideas seem to have slipped into the popular consciousness. Francis’ impassioned message makes clear that the effort to protect our shared planet —and to ensure that all people have the same basic access to clean air, clean water and a livable environment—is among the greatest moral tests of our time.

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