My wife, my editor, my family, my dog — they all tell me I’m obsessed with climate change. (My best friend does, too, but I discount that opinion because he’s an oil prospector.)
Well, you know what. I pay attention to other stuff. And speaking on behalf of the climate change-obsessed, allow me to prove it. Here, as the year draws to a close, is my list of the top 9 environmental stories in 2009 that had absolutely nothing to do with climate change.
1. The danger lurking inside your baby’s bottle: The Milwaukee Journal takes the cake this year for old-fashioned investigative reporting on an old-fashioned toxics story. Actually, the newspaper has been investigating bisphenol A (commonly referred to as BPA) — in food containers and other consumer plastic goods — for two years. But 2009 was the year that the investigation bore fruit: Other media began following the story about lax regulation and industry-funded studies, which skewed the science for years on a toxin that actually poses a risk for infants drinking out of baby bottles and people who microwave their food in containers. Finally, it appears the Food & Drug Administration may take action. At the very least, all that negative publicity has given consumer-product companies reason to switch to products that don’t contain BPA.
2. Carping about Asian carp: What is it about marine species from Asia that makes them such an exotic threat in North America waters? Zebra muscles. Walking snakehead. And, now, the Asian carp is about to take over the Great Lakes. Each invader deserves a science fiction movie. In the carp’s case, you’ve got the marine scientist/hero who discovered DNA from Asian carp in water samples taken from streams that flow into the Lake Michigan. You’ve got the government agency (Army Corps of Engineers) that reluctantly acknowledged the problem in November. And you’ve got posturing politicians raising the temperature for everyone by threatening lawsuits. "I am determined to take appropriate action to ensure that the integrity of Lake Michigan is not harmed by the introduction of these carp," the attorney general of Wisconsin warned just the other day. Most of all, you’ve got the carp itself — a preferred food in East Asia that undermines the fish-eat-fish food chain from one end to the other. The story would only be better if Asian carp ate people; their main food source turns out to be plankton, which seems a lot less dramatic.
3. Awash in coal ash: Last December, a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-ash dump overflowed and sent 5.4 million cubic yards of the toxic substance into nearby rivers. The backwash from that disaster created a lasting story on into in 2009. The spill contained massive amounts of toxins, enough to make the Exxon Valdez oil spill sound like a little leak. Once it became clear that the Environmental Protection Agency had ignored an ecological and public health hazard that literally was mounting up in plain sight, a handful of activists and reporters jumped on the larger story: There are hundreds of such dumps all around the country, some of which could lead to similar spills under the right conditions. The EPA finally did announce its intention to regulate the dumps. But the problem is so large and has been neglected for so long that it’s doubtful that the agency will have the guts to produce a regulation far-reaching enough to get the problem under control. The long-range problem is that a lot of the coal ash is a byproduct of trying to reduce the pollution that coal sends into the atmosphere. And if the U.S. relies on so-called “clean coal” to keep carbon emissions down, the effort to combat climate change could create even more coal ash. Oops! There’s that darned climate change popping up again. I just can’t get away from it.
4. Fix my plumbing: When the New York Times takes on a big investigation, it tends to get noticed. That doesn’t mean that anything happens because it’s noticed, but at least public officials can’t say they didn’t know about it. For the last five months, reporter Charles Duhigg has been filing stories as part of a series called “Toxic Waters.” It’s about “the worsening pollution in American waters and regulators’ response.” In the shadow of climate change and economic calamity, I’m not sure that the stories have led to action. The bottom line is that regulators have seldom acted over the last two decades even when incidents and studies showed that pollution was violating the Clean Water Act. Duhigg identified a variety of problems that degrade natural systems and threaten drinking water. He also exposed a $400 billion infrastructure problem that we haven’t begun to deal with -- not even with President Obama’s recent stimulus package.
5. The global water shortage: Nearly one billion people lack access to safe water, according to Water.org, a nonprofit group dedicated toward resolving the global water shortage. And the situation is only getting worse. In India, wells that were dug just a few short years ago to resolve water shortages are running dry. Multinational beverage companies argue that the key to ensuring supplies of the rapidly diminishing resource lies in unlocking the profit motive, so that prospecting for water and caring for water resources lies in the companies’ self-interest; environmentalists and non-profits counter that the large companies simply are trying to lock up water rights, which could exacerbate the shortage for people who can’t afford to buy water. What’s causing the problem? Unwise development. Overpopulation. A lack of infrastructure resources. And ... um ... wait a second ... climate change? How’d that sneak in there? Rising temperatures are changing weather patterns, so that dependable supplies of water aren’t available where they once were, and are causing more evaporation so that less water is stored in natural or manmade reservoirs.
6. The mysterious deaths of bats: First it was frogs and other amphibians. Now, it’s bats. Soon we’re not going to have any animals to eat bugs for us. The cave-dwelling mammals live in huge colonies -- nasty habitats that you’d think would make them immune to just about any disease. But those big colonies apparently make them vulnerable, too. Fewer and fewer habitats already has caused their numbers to shrink, before the mysterious “white-nose syndrome” was accompanied by massive die-offs. Bat populations are declining elsewhere, but so far the decline appears most dramatic in the Northeast, where wildlife officials are reporting only a one-in-10 survival rate.
7. The mysterious disappearance of bees: Honeybees are more important than most city folk realize. They pollinate an enormous variety of crops and wild plants. In 2006, beekeepers and then biologists started noticing an unexplained phenomenon -- “colony collapse syndrome.” Previously healthy hives would suddenly lose almost their entire population; nobody was sure where the bees went. This is science fiction creepy, the kind of thing that happens before the aliens invade. But it’s no joke. The collapse of bee colonies could lead to global agricultural calamity. This year, at least, brought some good news: more understanding of what may be causing the colonies to collapse and of potential solutions.
8. The garbage vortex: This was the year that the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, which I should mention is twice the size of Texas, got a ring of its own in the media circus. Two expeditions headed to the whirling monument to humankind, both to research the phenomenon and to draw attention to it. Now, an Australian man is on his way to the garbage patch via swimming. Of course, anything that’s twice the size of Texas ought to be able to draw attention to itself. It turns out that the Garbage Patch draws a lot more to itself than attention -- most of its refuse actually comes from sources on land rather than from ships: trash swept away by rivers and tides is carried to the giant vortex. There’s even talk now about cleaning it up. By the way did I mention that the spot is now twice the size of Texas?
9. Food, the way nature intended: I know, I know. You’re going to try to count this one against me because vegetarians and locavores are all about reducing their carbon footprint. Fair enough. But I still say the rise of slow, local, organic food has a lot more to do with a reaction to industrial agriculture, for its own sake. The movement took off over the last couple of years with books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation. But it really hit a high point in 2009, when the movie Food Inc. -- starring the authors of those two books -- hit theaters and surely got more than a handful of people to put down their Big Macs.