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A New Year Prediction: politicians won’t set the sustainability agenda in 2017

Our news feeds are rampant with predictions for 2017. Multinational media outlets and industry-specific bloggers alike are trying to make sense of what’s ahead. In the cleantech and sustainability arena speculations abound as to driving forces that will set the agenda in 2017: What progress will be made on the Paris Agreement? Will China take a leadership position? Will the new administration dismantle USEPA and Department of Energy programs in the United States? Will Brexit unravel environmental directives and impact the British countryside? While these are all important political issues, I would like to make a humbling observation: in the past, sustainability agenda were largely driven by events far beyond the reach of even the most powerful politicians. Here’s a list of agenda-setting events that stick in my memory (I'm sure there are many more). I limited the list to the current millennium:

  • 2001 - 9/11 attacks bring the USA to move towards energy independence

  • 2003 - The European deadly heatwave

  • 2004 - Indian Ocean tsunami

  • 2005 - Hurricane Katrina

  • 2006 - First Avian Flu human-to-human transmission

  • 2009 - Swine flu pandemic

  • 2010 - BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill

  • 2010 - a 30% reduction in Russian wheat exports causes price spikes and triggers the Arab Spring

  • 2011 - Five years of drought push Syria into civil war and a refugee crisis

  • 2011 - Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster

  • 2012 - Superstorm Sandy

  • 2014 - Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis

  • 2015 - Volkswagen emissions fraud

  • 2015 - Port of Tianjin explosions in China

  • 2015 - Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in California

  • 2016 - Zika virus spreads across Americas

  • 2016 - The Sioux tribe halt the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline at Standing Rock

Indeed, many of these events originate or are exacerbated by poor policies. A good number of them are symptoms of systemic issues. But their outcome are a powerful reminder that in our interaction with nature, we should keep our hubris at bay. It is also a reminder to the advocates of science and sustainability that no matter where political winds are blowing, they should keep their course - environmental impacts won’t simply subside because an important program was defunded or a popular politician denies science.

I recognize this observation hardly meets the definition of “comforting”, but it should serve us all to raise our chins, chart the long course ahead and proceed with confidence. An agenda of sustainability, clean energy and resource conservation is as relevant now as ever before.

Happy New Year one and all!