2017: A Recap of an Environmental Year in the New Reality of the Absurd

trump tramplesSee related timeline

Note I didn’t write “theater of the absurd” in the title of this piece because this year outstripped the metaphor. In 2017 the actor left the stage. He literally jumped through America’s reality TV screens and into the seat of our nation’s highest office. His antics now have powerful consequences that will affect us for years to come even if we throw out our televisions and never sit in a La-Z-Boy again.

With him came superstorms and mega-wildfires that I wish were just metaphors for the ferocity and sheer volume of the executive orders he hurled against environmental protections. I wish his appointment of oil industry chum Scott Pruitt to head the EPA was just a movie nightmare scene ending with us waking up like Dorothy after the tornado and discovering Oz was all a dream. But it’s not. Pruitt is decimating the EPA like a flying monkey swooping in to gag science while the rest of Trump’s administration marches around the White House singing “O-Ee-O! Eooooh-O!”.


For oil billions they all dig in to deny that fossil fuel causes climate change. It’s similar to the way firemen dig trenches to contain burning forests. Except firemen don’t deny what they are trying to contain or its causes. And they don’t try to sell you more wood to throw in, or roll back the “no campfires or fireworks in the woods” orders.

Seriously, it’s all so absurd if you called me this morning and told me the ice caps were on fire, I would have little reason to disbelieve you. Funny thing – my friend Seth did call me this morning and began telling me something about the Greenland ice sheets right when I was reading about the California wildfires. My mind scrambled what I was reading with what I was hearing and I responded, “What? The ice sheets are burning?” He laughed as he said, “No!  But there HAS been a record melting caused by a shift in the jet stream.”

For a moment, that clarification was a little comic relief. But not for long. Because on impulse I searched “Greenland burning,” and guess what? The peat exposed by the melting of Greenland’s permafrost WAS on fire — for two weeks in August!

What next? Will Pruitt’s EPA recommend extinguishing wildfires with gasoline? Wouldn’t be surprised in the least.pruitt_door

But first, a wrap-up on this year in the environment. In a chart. The absurd, the bad, and the ugly…and finally some silver linings. Because there actually are some! Like the number of people who have become activated to rise up to defend the environment, to fight for social justice and to work for climate solutions. You are beyond silver, you are gold! Socially responsibly and sustainably mined gold, of course. Which is a metaphor, and an aspiration.

#45 made 45 environmentally awful headlines in about as many weeks. (Gathered from National Geographic unless otherwise noted). To see this list as a timeline, click here.

First the absurdly bad news…

45 x 45 x 45
1. Jan 24 Pipelines Greenlit
2. Feb 1 Fossil Fuel CEO [Tillerson] Becomes Chief Diplomat
3. Feb 16 Streams Reopened to Mining Waste
4. Feb 17 Scott Pruitt Confirmed as EPA Chief
5. Mar 2 Federal Lands Won’t Be Unleaded
6. Mar 2 [Obama EPA] Emissions Info Request Nixed
7. Mar 7 ‘Science’ Scrubbed from EPA Mission Statement
8. Mar 9 EPA Chief Downplays Climate
9. Mar 13 Science [NOAA] and Environment Budget Threatened [EPA]
10. Mar 15 Fuel Efficiency Standards Reconsidered
11. Mar 17 Flint Funding Continued [as Great Lakes clean up funds nixed]
12. Mar 21 Trump Delays Listing of U.S. Bumblebee as Endangered
13. Mar 24 Keystone XL Pipeline Approved
14. Mar 27 Dakota Access Pipeline Prepared for Use
15. Mar 28 Climate Actions Undone [Aims to Rescind Clean Power Plan]
16. Mar 29 [Brain Damaging] Pesticide Avoids Total Ban
17. Mar 31 EPA Scientist Retires with a Bang [Lambasts Trump Admin]
18. Mar 31 Scientific Integrity Office Reviewing Pruitt
19. Apr 3 Trump Donates [$75k] to National Parks [After Cutting $1.5 Billion from Dept of Interior]
20. Apr 7 Climate Change Staffers Reassigned
21. Apr 13 EPA Announces “Back-to- Basics” [Economic Growth First]
22. Apr 14 Pruitt Calls for Exiting Paris Agreement
23. Apr 19 Interior Department Scrubs Climate Change Website
24. Apr 26 Trump Orders Review of National Monuments
[Includes Marine Sanctuaries]
25. Apr 28 Order Aims to Expand Offshore Drilling
26. Apr 28 EPA Scrubs Climate Change Website
27. May 5 EPA Dismisses Science Advisors
28. May 10 Attempt to Repeal Obama Methane Rule Fails
29. May 23 Trump Budget Proposes Steep Cuts for the Environment
30. Jun 1 US Pulls Out of Paris Climate Agreement
31. Jun 1 Oil begins flowing through Dakota Access Pipeline
32. Jun 8 Interior to Review Greater Sage Grouse Protection [to Support Energy Production on Federal Lands]
33. Jun 12 Interior Suggests Shrinking Bears Ears [National Monument]
34. Jun 13 NOAA Cancels Rule to Protect Whales from Fishing Nets
35. Jul 10 As California Burns, Trump’s Proposed Fire Service Cuts Loom
36. Aug 2 EPA Drops Delay of Obama-Era Ozone Standards
37. Aug 7 Interior Department Relaxes Aspects of Sage Grouse Protection
38. Aug 10 Report: EPA Enforcement Lags Under Trump
39. Aug 15 Trump Revokes Flood Standards Accounting for Sea-Level Rise
40. Aug 22 Mining Health Study Halted; Climate Advisory Panel Disbanded
41. Sep 14 Trump Says “We’ve had bigger storms” When Asked About Harvey, Irma and Climate Change (The Washington Post)
42. Oct 9 Trump EPA Poised to Scrap Clean Power Plan
43. Oct 19 Trump Pick for Top Environmental Post Called Belief in Global Warming a ‘Kind of Paganism’ (CNN)
44. Oct 23 Interior Dept. Proposes Largest-Ever Oil and Gas Lease Auction
45. Nov 27 Trump Races to Pick Judges Who Oversee Environmental Cases (via Guardian)

Superstorms & Seas
Jan 24

Sea Level Rise Estimate Grows Alarmingly Higher in Latest Federal Report (8ft)
A new report, written by scientists with several federal agencies and universities, says that under a worst-case scenario, climate change could raise the oceans an average of more than 8 feet by 2100, about 20 inches more than a previous federal estimate published in 2012.

Plastic Garbage Patch Bigger Than Mexico Found in Pacific
This zone of plastic pollution could be upward of a million square miles in size. The problem of plastic pollution is becoming ubiquitous in the oceans, with 90% of sea birds consuming it and over eight million tons of new plastic trash finding its way into the oceans every year. (National Geographic)

Apr 27
Mass Die-Off of Whales in Atlantic.. By December, 58 humpbacks and 17 North Atlantic Right Whales perished – a count high enough for NOAA to label them Unusual Mortality Events. (

Jun 1
2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season was hyperactive, extremely destructive and deadly, with multiple Cat 5 hurricanes and 17 named storms. Ten hurricanes occurred in a row, the greatest consecutive number in the satellite era. It is by far the costliest hurricane season ever recorded at $369.76 billion. (Wikipedia)

Aug 25
Hurricane Harvey

Aug 30 – Sep 12
Hurricane Irma

Sep 16 – Oct 3
Hurricane Maria

Oct 9-20
Hurricane Ophelia

Dec 12
Arctic Report Card: Lowest Sea Ice on Record, 2nd Warmest Year. (

Apr 20

The Jayne Wildfire in Fresno is the first of 8,773 fires in the California Wildfire Season, the most destructive on record. 1,341,854 acres have burned to date, with more still burning. (Wikipedia)

Jul 12 – Nov 2
Chetco Bar Fire in Oregon’s Rogue River – Siskiyou National Forest. The 8th largest fire in Oregon’s history consumed 191,125 acres and took 4.5 months to contain. (Wikipedia)

Aug 9
Greenland Permafrost on fire. Thousands of acres of permafrost are burning in what appears to be Greenland’s biggest fire on record. (Wikipedia)
Throughout October
250 wildfires ignite across Northern California, burning over 245,000 acres (990 km2), and causing more than $9.4 billion dollars (2017) in insured property losses, becoming the costliest group of wildfires on record. They destroyed over 9,000 structures and killed 44 people. (Wikipedia)

October 24
Study Links Wildfires to Climate Change A study by Appalachian State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro finds that climate change and the massive wildfires in California are related. The combination of California’s warmest summer on record and unusually high winds helped fuel the fires.

Dec 4
The Thomas Wildfire of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties begins. Still burning, it has consumed 249,500 acres, the largest wildfire of the season, and the fourth-largest in California history.

… and then the Silver Linings

The political and environmental storms activated people and organizations from all over RI and the US.

Feb 22-24
The Economist Hosted World Ocean Summit 2017. The fourth World Ocean Summit in Bali, Indonesia, brought a critical eye to the vital issue of how to finance a sustainable ocean. (The Economist)

Feb 23
UN Declares War on Ocean Plastic. UN Environment launched an unprecedented global campaign to eliminate major sources of marine litter: microplastics in cosmetics and the excessive use of single-use plastic, by the year 2022. The #CleanSeas campaign urges governments to pass plastic reduction policies, targets industry abusing the material and calls on consumers to change their throwaway habits. (UNEP)

Mar 3 & 4
re|ACT: symposium on arts and environment. Brown University presented its first-ever public symposium on arts and environment featuring 22 international artists. The degradation of the environment at the hands of current human lifestyles was addressed as well as visions, explorations and designs for sustainable human interaction. The plastic pollution panel featured artists such as Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres Institute who spoke about banning plastic microbeads used in toothpastes and body scrubs, and mistaken for food by fish and birds. Nature writer Carl Safina spoke of the value of art in a creating cultural shift of consciousness: “Why make art out of plastic garbage? To make people look – that’s the role of the artist.”

April 21
Smithsonian Hosts Earth Optimism Summit. This first-of-its-kind symposium exclusively presented solutions to environmental challenges that have already been implemented and proven to work.

April 29
People’s Climate March draws thousands of protesters alarmed by Trump’s environmental agenda to Washington.

Jun 7
Whales in New York City For the first time in a century, humpback whales have returned to the waters of New York harbor. “Because of the improvement of the water quality, algae … have multiplied, giving good food for … [a small oily forager fish beloved by whales], which have returned in numbers that the fishermen say they have not seen in their lifetimes,” Paul L. Sieswerda told PopSci.

Jun 12
Raimondo Commits RI to Paris Accord. By Executive Order, RI pledges to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord, regardless of Trump.

Jul 15
100+ rally for climate action at National Governors Association meeting. CARI, NoLNGinPVD, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Burrillville Land Trust, Fossil Free RI, Energize RI, and ECRI urged the governors to transition to renewable energy. “Governor Raimondo cannot simultaneously support the Paris Agreement and support Invenergy’s plan to build a … fracked gas power plant in Burrillville.” – RI Future

Oct 23
RI Protesters Make National News demonstrating against the EPA’s gag order to scientists at Narragansett Bay Climate Talk. Organized by CARI (Climate Action RI) and the RI Student Climate Coalition, a crowd of more than 40 protesters gagged themelves with bandanas and masking tape, making national news.

Nov 1
Middletown and Newport join Barrington in Banning Plastic Shopping Bags.

Nov 5
Concert for Climate Action, at Carnegie Hall in NYC featuring Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Bill McKibben, Michael Stipe, Cat Power and more.

Dec 7
The Ocean Cleanup. 22-year-old inventor Boyan Slat has been working on a device to rid the ocean of plastics since he was 18. Now it’s out of the manufacturing plant.

Dec 14
All 193 member nations sign UN pledge to tackle global crisis of plastic in the oceans.