Melting ice, declining polar bears, expanding dead zones, a momentous presidential race, and the final (almost) twelve months of George W. Bush's environmental malfeasance: 2008 will be perhaps best recalled by environmentalists for what it might bring than what it achieved. With both the global economy and the planet still in meltdown mode, and meaningful international action on climate change remaining a distant pipe-dream, we take a trip down memory lane to round up 2008's most important environmental stories month-by-month.


The year kicked off with a surprise win for Barack Obama in the Iowa caucus, followed by Hillary R Clinton's tearful comeback in New Hampshire; wins in Michigan and Florida left the GOP's greenest (but still not so green) candidate, John McCain, poised to clinch the Republican nomination. The Environmental Protection Agency started the year in the doghouse, after it emerged that agency chief Stephen Johnson had ignored his staff's advice in preventing California from regulating tailpipe emissions. President Bush began as he meant to go on: his State of the Union address all but ignored climate issues, repeating stale promises but offering no new policies.


Super Tuesday gave John McCain a decisive lead in the Republican primaries, but left the Democratic rivals deadlocked, setting the stage for a half-year-long war of attrition. After two important studies suggested that almost all biofuels release more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels, a group of senior bioscientists called for an overhaul of US ethanol policies. At the invitation of George W. Bush, the world’s largest polluters met in Hawaii for climate talks; they failed to arrive at a deal, but participants praised the US for showing "new flexibility." It also emerged that the Forest Service had issued permits for uranium exploration a few miles from the rim of the Grand Canyon.


The EPA announced a slight tightening of its smog standard, ignoring scientists' claims that deeper cuts in atmospheric pollutants were necessary to prevent deaths and serious illnesses. Al Gore launched a three year, $300 million ad campaign to raise awareness about global warming, featuring opposing political figures—Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi—sharing a sofa and talking about the need for change. McCain declared victory in the Republican primaries, while Obama eked out a lead of a hundred or so delegates in the Democratic race; national head-to-head polls gave Obama a slender lead over McCain.


McCain and Clinton both called for the gas tax to be suspended, drawing criticism from environmentalists, economists, and Obama. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff threw out the environmental rulebook, waiving both the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act to speed construction of a security fence along America's southern border. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a sobering report: "After heavy review from government representatives, it is not a radical document," noted The Washington Post. "But it represents a fundamental international consensus on climate change that has developed in the past few years." Bush called for the US to stabilize greenhouse emissions by 2025—a far cry from what either of his likely successors were proposing.


John McCain called for a mandatory emissions cap, and chastised Bush for his inaction. "I will not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears," he promised. With oil prices spiraling, Americans began to abandon their cars: Amtrak announced that year-on-year ticket sales were up by more 15 percent. Ignoring protests from Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin, the Interior Department declared polar bears an endangered species, pointing to the decline of the Arctic sea-ice upon which the bears depend. Still, departmental chief Dirk Kempthorne said it would be "inappropriate" to use the bear's protected status to force polluters to clean up their act.


The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act fell six votes short in the Senate, dashing Democrats' hopes of forcing Bush's hand on climate change legislation. California launched an ambitious new climate plan calling for 80 percent emission reductions by mid-century. Bush sought to block the publication of an EPA report explaining how the agency could regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act, as the US Supreme Court had ruled it could. Hillary Clinton conceded defeat and kinda-sorta endorsed Barack Obama, who was in a statistical tie with McCain in the polls. The Republican nominee said that as president he would seek to build 45 new nuclear reactors, and declared that increased offshore drilling would confer a "psychological benefit" on US consumers.


Bush rescinded several executive orders banning offshore drilling and called for Congress to follow suit. Former oilman T. Boone Pickens launched a massive PR blitz calling for new wind farms and natural-gas powered vehicles; cynics pointed out that he’d make a fortune if the ideas caught on. Al Gore called for the US to switch to carbon-free electricity within a decade. Agricultural chemicals flooded into the Gulf of Mexico, as they do each summer; this time the deoxygenated "dead zone" caused by the fertilizer runoff grew to the size of Israel. The EPA admitted that global warming would bring "substantial" threats to human health; a meeting of the G8 nations called climate change "one of the great global challenges of our time," then failed to do anything about it.


Obama flip-flopped on offshore drilling, saying he'd support limited drilling if it was accompanied by new alternative-energy measures. Bush announced proposals for vast new marine sanctuaries in the Pacific Ocean, a move The New York Times called "stunningly at odds with his record." The Interior Department floated plans to allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether their actions were likely to impact on endangered species, essentially allowing officials to opt out of the Endangered Species Act. Greens cheered as Obama announced Sen. Joe Biden, who in 1986 had introduced the first bill that would do anything about global warming, as his running mate. With help from Hillary, the Democratic party united around the Obama at the party convention in Denver; by the end of the month, Obama had opened up a 4.5 point lead over McCain.


In a bid to reclaim the limelight, McCain picked moose-hunting Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin as his running-mate. Michael Moore found God as Hurricane Gustav washed out the first day of the RNC, while former Maryland Lt Gov Michael Steele gave Republicans their election-season rallying cry: "Drill, baby, drill!" Voters liked what they heard: By mid-September, despite Tina Fey's best efforts, McCain had opened up a 3 point lead in the polls. Panicked Dems rushed to scrap a 27-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling; meanwhile, Arctic sea ice shrank to the second-lowest extent since records began. McCain's post-convention bounce didn’t last long: his bungled response to the burgeoning financial crisis angered David Letterman and helped Obama regain the upper hand.


McCain tried to resurrect his campaign by calling for yet more drilling and endorsing corn ethanol; Palin—cast as McCain's energy czar, with Republican handlers desperate to prove that she could simultaneously walk and chew gum—delivered a major energy-policy speech in which she appeared to mock the notion of mandatory carbon limits. T. Boone Pickens announced that he would scale back plans for a 4,000-megawatt wind-farm thanks to tumbling fossil-fuel prices. The EPA significantly tightened its atmospheric lead standard, though it would continue to allow lead concentrations seven times greater than the levels believed safe by agency scientists. The Obama campaign opened up a five-point lead as McCain's polling figures tracking the dwindling Dow.


Greens celebrated as Obama swept to victory. "My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process," the president-elect declared. Buoyed by Obama's success, Democrats made big gains in Congress, but fell short of a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate. With Obama's tacit support, Rep. Henry Waxman of California ousted Michigan's John Dingell, a key ally of Detroit's automakers, as chair of the House energy committee. President Bush launched a last-minute rush to weaken environmental standards and pass new anti-environmental regulations before the end of his administration. Sarah Palin pardoned a turkey.


Obama rolled out his environmental "dream team," appointing a climate czar to spearhead his administration's efforts to tackle global warming. Angling for a federal bailout, Detroit's automakers unveiled their plans for next-generation hybrid technology (even as GM suspended work on the Chevy Volt). Meeting in Poland, international climate negotiators made little headway; top UN climate official Yvo de Boer said he doubted a formal international climate treaty would be in place by the end of 2009, but said that he remained hopeful that world leaders would reach a "robust political agreement." Gallup polls found that more than two-thirds of Americans approved of President-Elect Obama; as the year drew to a close, barely a quarter were willing to say the same of President Bush.

Story by Ben Whitford. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

2008 in review
An historic presidential election, a financial crisis, a deteriorating planet… all that and more makes for one eventful year.