“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” by Bill McKibben (Rolling Stone)
McKibben has the ability to take what most enviros already know in their heads and make it a terrifyingly kick to the gut -- in this case, that we’re nearly past the point of no return when it comes to climate change, and that our refusal to even accept the dire situation we’re in matters not a whit to the scientific circumstances dictating our civilization’s survival.
“Your Smartphone’s Dirty, Radioactive Secret” by Kiera Butler (Mother Jones)
The rare earth elements used to make our iPhones and our other beloved electronics are -- as the name suggests -- rare, and getting them out of the earth is difficult, dangerous, and detrimental to poor countries around the world. Butler takes a tour of those poor countries and provides an eye-opening look at the destructive environmental impact of the gadgets we increasingly can’t do without.
“There Will Be No Bacon Shortage” by Matthew Yglesias (Slate)
You could say I loved this one because it stopped me from running out and hoarding pork products. But actually, I think it’s a great explanation of how today’s media, desperate for a sensational, Twitter-ready headline -- “We’re running out of bacon!” is a great story, after all, and I featured it in Today OnEarth every chance I got -- is willing to jump on any crisis, no matter how obviously manufactured. There will be no Twinkie crisis, either, by the way. On the other hand, drought, heat waves, and global warming are very, very real.
“The Big Heat” by Elizabeth Kolbert (New Yorker)
“Corn sex is complicated.” Best opening line I read all year.
“A Climate Scientist Battles Time and Mortality” by Justin Gillis (New York Times)
In the annals of climate science, Ohio State’s Lonnie Thompson stands as one of the absolute heroes. (We’ve written about and interviewed him here at OnEarth.) In a year when most of the news was bad to worse, the story of his heart transplant -- and his determination to get right back out on the glaciers in search of the oldest ice on the planet -- made me thankful that we’ve got someone with his smarts and spirit still working on the problem.
“Reining in the rumor about EPA ‘drones’” by David A. Fahrenthold (Washington Post)
It was all over talk radio and the TV news this spring: the EPA was spying on farmers with the same aerial drones used to kill terrorists overseas. Only one problem: it wasn’t true. Here’s the story that definitively debunked the rumor and explained how it spread so quickly.
“Screaming Trees” by Sophie Quinton (National Journal)
So often, environmental journalists tell us about problems -- species dying, ecosystems suffering -- and fail to make the connection with the policies that allow those problems to happen. Quinton does the opposite. She covers the well-chronicled epidemic of pine beetles destroying Western forests due to climate change, then nails politicians to the wall for failing to act. Rare and refreshing.
“Playing With Fire” by Patricia Callahan, Michael Hawthorne and Sam Roe (Chicago Tribune)
In perhaps the most important investigative reporting this year, this old-school newspaper series explains how a typical American sofa came to have more than two pounds of fire retardant in the cushions -- even though flame-retardant chemicals don’t work and have serious health risks, especially for our kids. Short answer: we were lied to. If this one doesn’t burn you up, nothing will.
“Life in the Sea Found Its Fate in a Paroxysm of Extinction” by Alanna Mitchell (New York Times)
As you can tell from this list, I read a lot of scary stories over the course of a year. Here’s my pick for the scariest: by dumping so much carbon dioxide into our seas and acidifying them, we could very well be recreating a mass extinction event so bad that scientists refer to it as “The Great Dying.” Not smart, guys.
“Whisper of the Wild” by Kim Tingley (New York Times Magazine)
Kim is one of my contributors here at OnEarth, so I’m a little biased about her work, but this amazingly well-written story that asks whether silence is going extinct is probably my favorite of the year, and I love how she incorporates sound clips throughout (a precursor to this multimedia marvel that everyone in journalism is now talking about as the wave of the future). Not a bad way to wrap up my list and 2013.
Note: As per my tradition, I didn’t include anything on this list from my own publication, because that would be cheating. See selections from other OnEarth editors here.