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Under-the-Radar Environmental Stories for 2015: The Furtive Five

Clockwise, from upper left: The Mir diamond mine in Siberia (credit: Wikimedia-Staselnik); Volcanic island in Cocibolca Lake (credit: Aaron Escobar); Amazon deforestation (credit: NASA); Tehran smog viewed from the Tochal mountains (credit: Milad Mosapoor).
Clockwise, from upper left: The Mir diamond mine in Siberia (credit: Wikimedia-Staselnik); Volcanic island in Cocibolca Lake (credit: Aaron Escobar); Amazon deforestation (credit: NASA); Tehran smog viewed from the Tochal mountains (credit: Milad Mosapoor).

Between crazy weather, international events, and global agreements, 2014 was a year in which climate change took center stage. Whether it was a catastrophic drought in California, accelerated ice melting in Antarctica, or even record-breaking heat disrupting the Australian Open, the impacts of climate change are being felt around the world—and people are starting to take notice.

As we begin the new year, however, there are a number of stories slipping past the public eye that are worth highlighting. Five stand out.

Siberia’s Natural Resources—Exploited without Scrutiny

The vast reaches of Siberia are well known for Soviet-era gulags and bitter cold. Yet this scarcely populated region contains one fifth of the world’s forests and is also the scene of massive environmental degradation that goes largely unreported. A case in point: when an independent investigation revealed that an estimated 80 percent of the timber exported from Siberia is illegally logged, the follow up coverage was practically non-existent.

Siberia is the source of Russia’s oil and gas deposits—the country is the world’s third largest producer of oil (after Saudi Arabia and the United States) and the world’s second largest producer of natural gas (after the U.S.). Siberia is also chock full of mines, helping make Russia the third largest producer of diamonds, the third largest producer of gold, and the second largest producer of nickel.

At present, most of the environmental news coming out of Siberia are large craters produced by the popping of methane bubbles as the permafrost melts. Perhaps these craters will inspire additional scrutiny for the region and its outsized environmental issues in 2015.

A New Grand Canal

It has all the markings of an international hullabaloo. A private company in China, the US’s biggest economic rival, working with the government of Nicaragua (led by former Sandinista Daniel Ortega), is building a US$50 billion “Grand Canal” to rival the US-built Panama Canal.

Protesters are facing tear gas and rubber bullets. Indigenous communities are facing forced relocations. Rainforests are slated for destruction and the region’s largest lake will be compromised, yet the project has been exempted from Nicaragua’s environmental review process. Most experts consider the project to be economically impractical. And yet coverage of the project remains mostly muted.

The project broke ground in December, 2014. As work commences in 2015, the spotlight of international media has been mostly elsewhere. The farther that spotlight stays away from the project, the more likely the project becomes a reality.

The Smog of Iran

When looking at the top producers of greenhouse gas emissions, the only way Iran cracks the top ten is if you exclude deforestation and land use changes. Yet the country has always been a leading producer of petroleum, and its reliance on oil and gas has started to catch up with its environment.

70% of Iran’s population lives in cities, where it is growing increasingly hard to breathe. Four of the top ten cities with the worst air pollution in the world in 2011 were located in Iran. Tehran, the country’s largest metropolis, did not make this list even though more than a third of the children living there have asthma or air-pollution related allergies.

As the price of crude oil continues to plummet, and with it, quite possibly, Iran’s economy, will the country’s air improve? Or will the country and its problems simply recede from the global spotlight, obscured by its own smog?

The Brazilian Amazon—Is Deforestation Still Going Down?

The current storyline has Brazil making remarkable progress in cutting the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. The past two years have seen the two lowest rates in the last 25 years. This good news stands out in comparison with its neighbor, Peru, where Amazon deforestation has increased 80 percent since 2001.

Yet a deeper look at Brazil reveals a large number of questions. How can the deforestation rates be low when Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise? Can the discrepancies between the deforestation data of the Brazilian government and a watchdog organization be reconciled? And what impact will the recent relaxation of deforestation regulations in Brazil’s forest code have?

With more than half the planet’s remaining rainforest, the Amazon is too closely watched to have such a conflicted storyline. At some point, satellite data and strong journalism will hopefully reveal the true fate of this vital forest.

Environmental Reporting on the Upswing?

The New York Times hired a new editor, and reconfigured its staff to assemble a new environment team a year and a half after disbanding the previous group. The Washington Post brought on a blogger to focus on the environment, with an eye to launching a standalone blog in 2015. Reuters hired a global editor for energy and the environment. CBS added an environment and science reporter to its online team. For years, environmental journalists have watched their numbers shrink—are we on the cusp of an upswing?

In its annual evaluation of climate change coverage, the Daily Climate found a 30 percent increase in the number of climate stories that ran in 2014, and a 26 percent increase in the number of outlets publishing stories on the topic. Yet this trend, while promising, deserves a closer examination in 2015. Daily Climate and its sister outlet, Environmental Health News, for example, have let staff go and are scaling back their operations this year. Are they the outlier, or the face of a continued decline? Only 2015 will tell. And the answer holds the key to whether the other four stories—and many others—will see the continued light of day.