Best and Worst Environmental Moments of 2010

2010:  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… for the environment.

For every success in Nagoya (yay!), there was at least one major coral bleaching event (boo!). Solar panels on the White House roof? Great! But what about that that oil spill?

The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist, Sanjayan, shares his “best and worst” moments of the year (in no particular order).

So, you want the bad news first, right?


  • A rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers—and sent an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil gushing into one of the most productive and biodiverse bodies of water in the United States. At the time, President Obama called it “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” but eventually, the doomsday chatter died down. Today, the Gulf doesn’t seem to be on the forefront of most minds, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily off the hook.
  • “It would be amazing for a major catastrophe like the Gulf oil spill to have no impact on the ecosystem,” says Sanjayan. “The lasting effects remain to be seen, and it will be in the food chain where it will show up.”

  • Hotter-than-average temperatures and warmer seas set a perfect stage for devastating coral bleaching. This year, for the first time since 1998, researchers observed bleaching activity in literally every ocean and sea where corals live. Some—but not all— coral reefs are resilient, and are capable of rebounding from serious bleaching events. Reefs that aren’t resilient die.
  • “Coral reefs are incredibly valuable for the economy and marine ecology,” says Sanjayan. “Bleaching activity at this scale could really be a knock-out punch for some coral communities.”

  • People are caring about—and believing in—climate change a lot less than they used to. A recent Pew study found that less than a third of Americans think that climate change is a very serious problem. Even scarier? Only 59 percent of Americans believe there is “solid evidence” that the planet’s getting warmer at all, down from 79 percent in 2006.
  • “There’s been this attitudinal shift,” explains Sanjayan. “Even as the impacts become more and more apparent, more and more people, abject at their apparent inability to do anything about it, are willing to pretend it’s not happening. It’s the ostrich strategy. And we scientists, by talking at or above people, are partly to blame.

Well, that was depressing.  Let’s end on a cheerier note, shall we?


  • If box office receipts are any indication, people sure are intrigued and inspired by the natural world. Disneynature’s OCEANS took in big bucks at theaters, and on its opening day, broke the single-day box-office record for a nature documentary. The Cove, a film about dolphin-hunting and mercury poisoning in Japan, garnered numerous awards in 2010, including an Oscar. Miniseries like National Geographic’s Great Migrations and Discovery’s Life brought nature into millions of living rooms.
  • “Even Sarah Palin got in on the action, showing off the natural beauty of her home state of Alaska” on her popular TLC series, adds Sanjayan.

  • Even in not-so-great economic times, investment in conservation was a priority. “I think people are starting to appreciate the benefits that nature provides us,” says Sanjayan. “The environment, the economy, health…it’s all entwined.”
  • The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, in partnership with the State of Montana and the Federal government, completed the final phase of the Montana Legacy Project. With a price tag close to $500 million, a critical 310,000 acres of forest, rivers and lakes of the Crown of the Continent will be conserved forever. The project not only benefits wildlife like grizzly bear, lynx, wolverine and trout, but also people whose livelihoods depend on this spectacular place.

    On the other side of the planet, the Conservancy teamed up with China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to create an expansive conservation blueprint that will help conservation practitioners develop large-scale plans and priorities for protecting the country’s land and water resources.

  • Hybrid and electric cars got a lot cooler—and more accessible.  Scientists have estimated that cars and trucks are responsible for about a quarter of U.S. carbon emissions, but these days, every major car manufacturer provides an alternative to your typical fossil-fuel-burner. This year, both Chevrolet and Nissan released mass-market electric vehicles. Chevy’s Volt even earned the title of “Car of the Year” from both Motor Trend and Automobile magazines; Green Car Journal dubbed it the “Green Car of the Year” as well.
  • “If you want a hybrid, you’re no longer confined to Honda or Toyota,” says Sanjayan. “American car companies are in the act in a big way, and none other than our president is our salesperson-in-chief.”

What do you think about this list? Did we miss some stories that should be highlighted? Do you have more to add? Tell us in the comments below.

(First Image: Heavily oiled Brown Pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on Thursday, June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned of Gulf spill crude at The Fort Jackson Wildlife Care Center in Buras, LA. Image credit: IBRRC/Flickr through a Creative Commons license. Second Image: Montana’s Swan Valley and the southern end of the Mission Mountain Range in the distance. The Swan, part of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, is one of the wildest, most intact places on Earth, boasting no animal extinction in the past 200 years. Photo credit: © Gail Moser/TNC)

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  1. I think about hybrids (and public transportation) every day during my commute. I recently went to a car show in Boston, and was pretty impressed by the hybrids. Now if they could only shake the hybrid design language… However, I suppose something recognizable does make increase of hybrid use would be more visible.

  2. UPDATE: Since I submitted this post late last week, two big great and awesome environmental things have happened!

    First up, COP16: Ample good news for forests and climate policy came out of Cancun this weekend.

    Next, gorillas: A new census indicates that the population of endangered mountain gorillas has increased significantly in the last 30 years.

    What else did I miss, guys?

  3. @ Danielle

    No offence, but, do you know how much pollution is created during the process of creating hybrid cars?

  4. @Anthony

    Create a Hybrid once and drive for 15+ years whats wrong with that?

    Maybe you should compare the pollution difference of the production of a regular car and the hybrid, and let us know, cause we know you don’t want to give us biased information, do you?

  5. Good & pertinent list! Personally,my favourite nature conservation stories happened right at the end of the year. On 16th December the European govt passed a shark protection bill which forbids shark finning-a week later the US senate then congress passed a similar bill which awaits president Obama’s signature. Now if only other countries-especially in Asia-follow suit in 2011,that’d be excellent!!
    Just a mention for some smaller places who, during 2010,declared their waters ‘shark sanctuaries’-Raja Ampat & the North Marianes. In the face of probable extinction of some shark species within a decade or so (75 million sharks caught for their fins every year)these places deserve our thanks & gratitude as (hopefull) trend-setters!!

  6. What is Nature Conservancy doing to encourage the Chinese government to re-route the proposed highway bisecting the Serengetti?

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