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!