Year in review: 50 major stories about the environment in 2020

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December 19, 2020
Justin McManus/The Age/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Year in review: 50 major stories about the environment in 2020

Two things dominated the news cycle in 2020: the coronavirus pandemic, and the 2020 presidential election. But these weren’t the only noteworthy events of the year. Plenty of other significant things happened, especially in the environment and climate change spheres.

A handful of years ago, some of the world’s leading scientists declared 2020 a critical year in the fight against climate change. Back in 2015, this declaration brought nearly 200 countries together to develop the Paris Climate Agreement, a pledge to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and keep rising global temperatures in check. While the agreement had been successful in its mission so far, scientists say that it's not enough. More must be done to keep the world from becoming an uninhabitable hellscape, including wide-ranging public policies, checks on corporate emissions, and changes in the way the ordinary person lives.

As climate change becomes a more widely discussed and acknowledged issue in our lives, the reporting on it grows and becomes more comprehensive. There are now hundreds if not thousands of climate-related stories written each year where there used to be only a few. For example, The Guardian alone published 3,000 climate and environment-related articles in 2020. While we love to see such an important issue being given that much space, we know that it can be difficult to keep up with such an immense amount of information. So we did it for you.

Stacker compiled a list of 50 major stories about the environment that were published in 2020, using news archives and government resources. So without further ado, from the Bezos Earth Fund to the derecho that swept the Midwest, here are the biggest news stories about the environment that you may have missed in 2020.

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January 22: Trump repeals the “Waters of the United States” regulation

In January, the Trump administration repealed the Obama-era “Waters of the United States” regulation that sought to protect streams, wetlands, and groundwater in an effort to keep the country’s water supply clean. The repeal now allows landowners and developers to dump pollutants into waterways and to destroy wetlands in order to complete new construction projects.

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Brett Hondow // Shutterstock

January 27: Cambridge ordains climate warning labels on gas pumps

An ordinance passed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that requires the placement of warning labels (think those that appear on the outside of a carton of cigarettes) on gas pumps. This is the first city in the nation to require these labels that educate consumers about the dangers of fossil fuel use. “The fight to reverse climate change requires that everyone take action to change their behavior, and the City must underscore the fact that each individual’s behavior can make an impact on the environment and on public health,” says the ordinance.

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Halfpoint // Shutterstock

February 6: Majority of Americans agree about climate change

The American Psychological Association found that for the first time, the majority of Americans (56%) agree that climate change is the most significant issue we face as a society. Still, four in 10 adults admit that they have yet to take any steps in their own lives to reduce their impact on the Earth, leaving room for plenty more work to be done.

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Alessandro Dahan // Getty Images

February 9: Antarctic temperatures reach record highs

Brazilian scientists on Seymour Island reported record high temperatures of 20.75 degrees Celsius (or nearly 69 degrees Fahrenheit) in early February. Describing the record as “incredible and abnormal,” the scientists warned that it may indicate climate instability in the world’s largest collection of ice.

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Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Amazon

February 15: Jeff Bezos launches Bezos Earth Fund

The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, announced the launch of the Bezos Earth Fund in February. After being pushed by Amazon employees on climate issues for years, Bezos announced on Instagram that he’d be giving $10 billion to scientists, activists, and non-governmental organizations who seek to combat climate change. Amazon still contributes to climate change, and some of those employee activists faced punishment for demanding Bezos address Amazon's greenhouse emissions contributions. Bezos' net worth is $182 billion.

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Eduardo Munoz Alvarez // Getty Images

March 1: New York plastic bag ban takes effect

A bill passed in 2019 banned the use of plastic bags in New York state, which went into effect on March 1, 2020. Only the second state to enact such a ban (the first was California), New York would delay enforcement of the ban temporarily through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but began cracking down on offenders again in October.

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Justin McManus/The Age/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

March 4: Australian wildfires are contained

One of the first and most major environmental events of the year was the out-of-control wildfires that swept over much of Australia. Beginning in earnest in September 2019, the fires decimated more than 46 million acres of land and sent smoke traveling around the globe. Major rainstorms finally helped to contain them all nine months later in March 2020. Global climate change has created dryer, hotter weather, which increased Australia's fire season and made the fires more severe.

[Pictured: People stranded in Mallacoota, Victoria are evacuated by army personnel to the HMAS Choules after bushfires ravaged the town on Dec. 30 on Jan. 3, 2020 in Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia.]

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txking // Shutterstock

March 26: Extreme heat is found to impact mental health

The scientific journal PLOS One published a study in March revealing that extreme heat, like the kind caused by ever-increasing heat waves, can have a negative impact on mental health as well as physical health. On days over 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit, the study found, folks are more likely to experience stress, depression, and emotional issues than they are on days where temperatures are cooler than 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Maurizio Biso // Shutterstock

April 7: The Great Barrier Reef experiences a bleaching event

In early April, the Great Barrier Reef experienced its third bleaching event in five years, setting a modern record. A stress reaction to warm ocean temperatures, the bleaching would appear to indicate that the speed of global warming has increased and that these events might become more commonplace moving forwards.

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April 14: A plastic recycling enzyme uncovered

A French startup named Carbios discovered an enzyme that could break down PET plastics (the most common type of plastic) earlier this year. Several mutations later, they unveiled a new iteration of the microorganism that could almost completely degrade a metric ton of PET plastic in just 10 hours, which is big news in the fight against plastics pollution.

[Pictured: A technician oversees a chemical manipulation on a Carbios reactor at the premises of Carbios, in Saint-Beauzire, central-southern France, on April 1, 2019.]

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Mark Wilson // Getty Images

April 16: EPA weakens controls on Mercury

Released in the emissions of many oil- and coal-fired plants, mercury is a heavy metal with demonstrated links to brain damage. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would be adjusting regulations surrounding the release of the toxic pollutant, allowing significantly more of it to be released into the air. This rollback also weakened the EPA’s ability to regulate air pollution overall.

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George Rose // Getty Images

April 17: Western megadrought predicted as worst in modern history

An ongoing megadrought affecting nine western states, including Oregon, Montana, California, and New Mexico, was predicted to be the area’s worst drought in 1,200 years in mid-April. Catastrophic wildfires, decreasing snowpack, and dwindling water resources all contributed to the climate-driven drought which may end up decimating that entire region of the country. Impacting an even larger swath of land than previous megadroughts, scientists believe this one might be as bad as those occurring in prehistoric times.

[Pictured: A clear morning sky over the mountains is viewed at sunrise on March 5, 2020, in South Lake Tahoe, California. After a series of heavy snowstorms in December, the moisture flowing off the Pacific Ocean and into the mountains disappeared in January and February leaving the annual snowpack at 50 percent of normal.]

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May 2: Murder hornets reach the U.S.

In early May, news outlets began to report that Asian giant hornets, dubbed murder hornets for their ability to easily kill entire colonies of bees, had arrived in the United States. The first sightings of the massive insects came from Washington state after beekeepers found entire hives wiped out by mysterious predators. Biologists and beekeepers fear that the hornets would establish themselves and threaten an already struggling bee population.

[Pictured: Sven Spichiger, Washington State Department of Agriculture managing entomologist, displays a canister of Asian giant hornets vacuumed from a nest in a tree behind him on Oct. 24, 2020, in Blaine, Washington.]

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Teun van den Dries // Shutterstock

May 22: Country’s first freshwater wind farm approved

Ohio approved plans for the country’s first freshwater offshore wind farm, which they’ve called the Icebreaker wind project, this spring. The unique project will have six turbines placed in Lake Erie, just off the shore of Cleveland, that will connect to local power plants by a 12-mile long, underwater cord. The turbines should produce enough energy to fully power 7,000 homes.

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Angela Compagnone // Shutterstock

June 6: Protections end for East Coast’s Marine National Monument

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is a nearly 5,000 square-mile area near Cape Cod that has been off-limits for commercial fishermen since 2016. Earlier this year, Trump removed these protections, allowing the fragile ecosystem to face the threat of overfishing once again.

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June 23: An investigation finds Americans can’t afford water

The Guardian completed an investigation in June that found that millions of Americans were unable to pay their water bills, as the cost of the basic utility had skyrocketed by an average of 80% and federal help had gone down by 77%. The findings highlight once again how environmental issues affect minority populations disproportionately.

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Stefani Reynolds // Getty Images

June 30: Select Committee on the Climate Crisis releases a climate plan

At the end of June, Democrats involved in the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a comprehensive plan for dealing with climate change. The ambitious path of action is based on twelve pillars that, taken together, would allow America to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. While enacting all parts of the plan will be difficult, the effort demonstrates that getting a handle on global warming is well within our reach.

[Pictured: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), joined by members of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, delivers remarks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on June 30, 2020.]

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Alex Wong // Getty Images

July 5: Dakota Access Pipeline temporarily shut down

On August 5, a district court ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline must be shut down temporarily as it violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it failed to produce an Environmental Impact Statement. This was a huge win for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who has been protesting the pipeline which travels through their land for years. It remains to be seen whether the pipeline will resume carrying oil or be shut down for good.

[Pictured: Activists participate in a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline March 10, 2017, in Washington D.C.]

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July 6: The Supreme Court halts construction on the Keystone XL pipeline

In an attempt to make good on a handful of outstanding campaign promises, President Trump attempted to fast track development on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Hardisty, Canada, to Steel City, Nebraska. Much to the delight of environmental groups, these efforts were stopped by the Supreme Court in July when the judicial body ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers had failed to consider the pipeline’s effect on endangered species, and therefore, could not go ahead. This ruling and Joe Biden’s recent election as president may finally shut down the project for good.

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July 14: Warm Springs Reservation water crisis ends

Much like Flint, Michigan, Oregon’s Warm Springs Reservation has been in the midst of a water crisis and under a boil water notice for years. Things finally came to a head in July when much of the reservation was left without running water during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. On July 14, the state’s government approved $3.6 million in aid for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which allowed them to regain access to the basic, human right of clean, potable water.

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Drew Angerer // Getty Images

July 15: National Environmental Policy Act weakened

The Trump administration dealt one of its biggest blows to the slowing of human-created climate change this summer when it weakened the National Environmental Policy Act. The federal government claimed that in doing so, it would save millions of dollars by speeding up construction and developmental projects. However, the move also exempts federal agencies from having to consider the impact a project would have on the environment before granting it permission to go ahead.

[Pictured: President Donald Trump speaks on the South Lawn of the White House on July 16, 2020 in Washington D.C. ]

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July 20: Morgan Stanley begins measuring “dirty” investments

Politico reported that Morgan Stanley would be the first major bank to begin disclosing how “dirty,” or bad for the environment, any given investment it makes is. The bank joined the steerage board of the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials, which seeks to hold financial institutions accountable for their role in exacerbating climate change.

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July 28: Research indicates climate crisis will exacerbate racial inequality

In July, research was released indicating an increase in greenhouse emissions, and their dangerous heatwaves, would further exacerbate racial inequality in America. Black and Latinx communities are disproportionately affected by killer heat, as they tend to live in hotter, dryer areas of the United States (a legacy of slavery). If America doesn’t do its part to curb these emissions and slow global warming, worsening climate justice issues will exacerbate racial justice issues.

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August 4: Great American Outdoors Act signed into law

The Great American Outdoors Act permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and allocated several billion dollars for necessary repairs and upkeep in national parks. The act was signed into law by President Trump in August, after gaining bipartisan approval in Congress.

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Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

August 4: Tropical Storm Isaias hits the East Coast

Also on August 4, Tropical Storm Isaias swept up the East Coast, killing a handful of people and knocking out power for millions. The storm’s 40-50 mph wind gusts and pounding rains left behind significant devastation, as several areas experienced massive flooding and tornadoes. The storm was one of several weather-related events that cost the country billions of dollars in damage.

[Pictured: Construction crew erect temporary flood barriers in South Street Seaport neighborhood in preparation for potential floods and a storm surge from Tropical Storm Isaias.]

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August 9: The Endangered Species Act is weakened

Threatened and endangered species found themselves at an increased risk of disappearing after the EPA weakened several restrictions that had been designed to protect the animals. The new rules make it easier to remove species from endangered lists, negate protections that keep threatened species from becoming endangered, and allow businesses to consider economic factors—like lost revenue—when deciding whether or not a species should be included on endangered or threatened lists.

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Daniel Acker // Getty Images

August 10-11: A derecho sweeps through the Midwest

Over the course of 14 hours on August 10 and 11, a sustained line of thunderstorms swept through much of the Midwest, from South Dakota to Ohio. Most of the damage occurred in Iowa and northern Illinois, where tornados flattened acres of crops, as well as dozens of homes and vehicles. The most expensive thunderstorm in American history, the derecho caused $7.5 billion in damage.

[Pictured: In this aerial image from a drone, damaged grain bins are shown at the Heartland Co-Op grain elevator on August 11, 2020 in Luther, Iowa.]

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Mario Tama // Getty Images

August 15: Earth’s highest temperature ever recorded

Death Valley is one of the hottest and driest places on Earth, and on August 15, it was official. On that Sunday, the highest ever, reliably recorded temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (or 54 degrees Celsius) was noted by scientists. While higher temperatures have been reported before, this is the highest to be certified by the World Meteorological Organization.

[Pictured: Visitors walk near a sign warning of extreme heat danger on August 17, 2020 in Death Valley National Park, California.]

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Laura Liz Photography // Shutterstock

August 23: Ocean water sets record temps

Water temperature readings just off the San Diego coast reached record highs this summer when a heatwave raised them to 79.5 degrees Fahrenheit (or 26.3 degrees Celsius). Researchers declared the rising seawater temps “concerning,” explaining that they’d have negative effects on the nearshore habitats that sustain fish and other types of marine life. These increasingly high temperatures are also an indication of global warming.

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August 27: Hurricane Laura makes landfall

When Hurricane Laura made landfall in Cameron, Louisiana, on August 27, the Category 4 storm became one of the strongest storms to hit America in over 150 years. With winds reaching up to 150 mph, the National Hurricane Center warned that it would be “unsurvivable” for anyone who remained in its wake. All told, Laura killed at least 28 people in the southern state.

[Pictured: People trying to reach their homes in Cameron parish drive past downed power lines after the passing of Hurricane Laura south of Lake Charles, Louisiana on August 28, 2020. ]

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karanik yimpat // Shutterstock

September 16: Facebook launches its climate change hub

Replicating its widely used COVID-19 information center, Facebook launched a similar climate change information center early this fall. While it was acknowledged as a step in the right direction, many criticized the social media network for not doing more to curb misinformation about global warming on its own platform.

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Joe Raedle // Getty Images

September 16: Hurricane Sally makes landfall

A Category 2 storm, Hurricane Sally dropped 30 inches of rain in Pensacola, Florida, after making landfall on Sept. 16. Equivalent to four months of rain, the storm caused massive flooding in the area, claimed several lives, and caused billions of dollars worth of damage.

[Pictured: An aerial view from a drone shows Jamie Cade (L) waiting as her mother Jody Wright walks into her damaged apartment after the roof was damaged when Hurricane Sally passed through the area on Sept. 17, 2020 in Perdido Key, Florida.]

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September 18: The U.N. warns that famine threatens the globe

In September, World Food Programme executive director David Beasley warned the U.N.’s Security Council for a second time this year that a wave of famine could sweep the globe in the next year, overwhelming many nations who already deal with food instability. He reported that the conflict-caused, global hunger crisis had been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that an international hunger pandemic was waiting in the wings. In response, countries around the world spent $17 trillion in fiscal stimulus packages in an effort to keep the famine at bay.

[Pictured: A child waits to be served food donated by the disaster management program in Newtown, Johannesburg, on April 9, 2020.]

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Sean Gallup // Getty Images

September 21: Scientists announce second-lowest Arctic ice extent

Each year, the Arctic sea ice, or the ice that floats over the Arctic Ocean, goes through a season of expansion that is measured by scientists. These measurements help us to determine how much of that ice is really left. In 2020, scientists announced that it was at its second-lowest expansion of all time, covering only 1.44 million square miles.

[Pictured: A hiker walks among winding channels carved by water on the surface of the melting Longyearbreen glacier during a summer heat wave on Svalbard archipelago on July 31, 2020 near Longyearbyen, Norway.]

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Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

September 22: California bans the sale of gas-powered cars

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in September that banned the sale of new, gas-powered cars in the state beginning in 2035. California is the first state to pass such an order, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35%.

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Somogyi Laszlo // Shutterstock

September 23: EPA rejects links between pesticides and health problems

The Environmental Protection Agency went against the findings of its own scientists earlier this year when it denied the link between a commonly used pesticide called chlorpyrifos and serious health problems. The pesticide, which is used on soybeans, almonds, and grapes, among other crops, has been demonstrated to stunt brain development in children. But the EPA’s denial will allow it to remain in use, regardless of the proven ill effects.

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Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images

September 25: Joshua trees become the first plants to receive protection

A temporary measure passed by California’s Fish and Game Commission made the Western Joshua tree the first-ever plant to be placed under the Endangered Species Act because of climate change. While the move is only temporary for now—lasting a year—scientists researching how the plant is affected by climate change can push for it to be made permanent if a significant enough threat is found.

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Mario Tama // Getty Images

September 25: Scientists verify a COVID-19 induced drop in air pollution

In an article published in “Chemical & Engineering News” on Sept. 25, a group of scientists confirmed what many had been assuming for months: COVID-19 lockdowns had, generally speaking, caused air pollution to drop around the globe. In particular, levels of two high-quantity traffic emissions, carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), and nitrogen dioxide, fell. While the decrease was short-lived, it gave scientists and the general public a real-world glimpse of what would happen if half of us switched to electric cars.

[Pictured: An aerial view shows MacArthur Park and downtown in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, on April 15, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. EPA data from March shows that Los Angeles had its longest stretch of air quality rated as "good" since 1995 as shelter-in-place orders were issued in response to the spread of COVID-19.]

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David McNew // Getty Images

October 5: California’s first gigafire

While California always experiences devastating wildfire seasons, they’ve only been getting worse in recent years. On October 5, the state reported that it was experiencing its first gigafire or a wildfire that had burned over 1 million acres. The August Complex began in mid-August as a series of separate fires that resulted from lightning strikes, and wasn’t fully contained until mid-November.

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Kris Connor // Getty Images

October 25: NOAA hires David Legates

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the country’s foremost scientific agencies, hired a known climate denier, David Legates, in October. The move infuriated environmentalists, who worried that the agency’s work would be undermined by Legates’ presence and leadership.

[Pictured: Brent Bozell, Founder and President of the Media Research Center, former Governor Sarah Palin, Dr. David Legates and David Rothbard, Executive Producer of the film and President of CFACT, speak during the "Climate Hustle" panel discussion at the Rayburn House Office Building on April 14, 2016, in Washington D.C.]

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YegoroV // Shutterstock

October 28: Trump ends Tongass National Forest protections

Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is America’s largest national forest at 16.7 million acres. In October, Trump stripped protections from 9.4 million of these acres, effectively opening them up to logging, and eliminating the country’s largest carbon dioxide sink. Poised to have drastic negative effects on the climate, the move will only benefit China, which buys over 90% of the lumber produced in already commodified areas of the forest.

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October 30: U.S. Labor Department curbs sustainable 401(k) investing

In a truly spooky move, the day before Halloween, the U.S. Labor Department finalized a rule that curbed the ability of 401(k) plans from investing in funds that focus on environmental and social issues. The government argued that limiting investments to risk-and-return stocks and bonds benefited fiduciaries, overruling an Obama-era law that said these investments were permissible as long they were competitive.

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Lukas Schulze // Getty Images

November 3: The U.S. leaves the Paris Climate Agreement

President Trump notified the U.N. that America would be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to control greenhouse gas emissions, in 2019. A mandatory year-long waiting period ended on November 3, 2020, and we officially pulled out from the landmark deal, becoming the first country to do so. Our withdrawal is especially significant because we have released more cumulative carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country.

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AB Photographie // Shutterstock

November 6: Colorado votes to bring back wolves

For the first time in U.S. history, American voters forced a state government to bring back an animal that had disappeared due to human action. Proposition 114, which required Colorado’s government to concoct a plan that would safely allow the gray wolf to return to the state, passed on November 6 with 50.4% of the vote. The result reflects a growing push among Americans to restore a balance in nature.

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Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

November 17: Biden vows to run a “climate administration”

Shortly after his presidential win, Joe Biden began naming members of his future administrative team. The president-elect vowed to head an administration where climate policy was embedded in all departments, from Defense to Transportation, rather than relegating it to environmental agencies alone. Many of the cabinet members who have been named thus far have solid track records in environmental matters, giving folks hope that actual change may be on the horizon.

[Pictured: President-elect Joe Biden introduces his cabinet member nominees at the Queen in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24, 2020.]

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November 30: Amazon deforestation hits 12-year high

The Amazon is the world’s largest remaining rainforest and a globally significant ecosystem. In November, it was announced that deforestation over the past year had increased by 9.5% to 4,280 square miles (essentially the size of the state of Connecticut), a 12-year high. This large scale stripping of the land means that the rainforest can’t absorb as much carbon dioxide, which in turn increases the rate of global warming.

[Pictured: Aerial picture of a deforested area close to Sinop, Mato Grosso State, Brazil, taken on August 7, 2020.]

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Danita Delimont // Shutterstock

November 31: Every major bank opts out of Arctic drilling

Throughout his administration, Trump has been a vocal supporter of Arctic drilling, even changing several existing regulations in an effort to make it easier. However, the environment scored a big win on November 31 when Bank of America announced that it would no longer finance fossil fuel exploration in the region. The bank was the last major financial institution to do so, joining Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Chase, Wells Fargo, and CitiBank, which had all made similar pledges.

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Jussi Puikkonen/KNAW // Wikimedia Commons

December 1: Georgina Mace dies

One of the world’s leading conservation scientists, Georgina Mace, died on December 1. Mace was responsible for the Red List, the most comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of plants and animals in the world. Her work shifted the basis of conservation efforts from politics to science, and altered the fates of several thousand species along the way.

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Sean Gallup // Getty Images

December 2: WMO announces 2020 as warmest year on record

Toward the end of this year, the World Meteorological Organization announced that, barring any significant changes, 2020 was set to be the warmest year on record. Throughout the last 12 months, temperatures have been 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than they were in pre-industrial (1850-1900) times.

[Pictured: Water rich in sediment drips from ice inside the melting Longyearbreen glacier during a summer heat wave on Svalbard archipelago on July 31, 2020, near Longyearbyen, Norway.]

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December 9: The U.N. announces a six-degree temperature increase

A U.N. report released earlier this month announced that if the world’s carbon emissions remain as they are, the planet will be more than six degrees hotter by the end of the century. This level of increase could make the earth uninhabitable for current life forms. That being said, the report also offered tangible solutions to slow global warming and change the future of the planet.

[Pictured: A hiker walks below an orange sky filled with wildfire smoke on the Limeridge Open Space hiking trails in Concord, California on Sept. 9, 2020.]

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