Planet Earth
Credit: NASA

10 folks who have influenced the environmental landscape—for better or worse

A thoroughly incomplete list of politicians, scientists, activists, tycoons, journalists, and philanthropists who have made a difference

The environmental landscape contains a wealth of personalities: Hellraisers and treehuggers; deniers and political hacks; academics and scientists; geeks and ink-stained wretches.


Here are 10 that I find particularly interesting and influential.

Senator Jim Inhofe

Jim Inhofe

Sen. Jim Inhofe (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Perhaps not the most popular choice for many who read this, but you can't say that James Mountain Inhofe hasn't had an impact. Washington's Slayer of Science, the Duke of Denial, the Sultan of Shibboleth.

Inhofe's Senate career can be distilled to two things: First, he routinely defeats token Democratic opposition by 3-to-1 margins or more. Second, he's America's climate-denial standard bearer.

Robert Bullard

Robert Bullard

Robert Bullard. (Credit: University of Michigan)

From his academic perch at Texas Southern U, Bob Bullard reigns as "The Father of the Environmental Justice Movement."

In 1990, he published Dumping in Dixie, a book detailing the struggles of African-American communities in the South battling against the siting of toxic factories and landfills.

Richard and Rhoda Goldman

2017 Goldman Prize winners. (Credit: Nancy Pelosi/flickr)

Maybe the Goldmans are an odd choice, since Richard passed away in 2010 and Rhoda in 1996.

But after striking it rich in the insurance industry, the Goldmans established the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1990. Activists from each of six regions of the world are recognized with the so-called "Green Nobels."

In addition to a six-figure cash award, the Goldman winners are infused with a measure of prestige. More importantly, the visibility of the prize gives honorees from the developing world who take their lives in their hands through their work a measure of protection.

Winning a Goldman prize was not enough to protect one honoree, Berta Caceres, who was murdered in 2016. But what the Goldmans started 30 years ago has no doubt helped protect others.

Mary Anne Hitt

Mary Ann Hitt

Mary Ann Hitt (Credit: Youtube)

Hitt directs the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. She grew up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and previously ran the nonprofit Appalachian Voices group.

As a child of Appalachia, Hitt brings a brand of street cred that can only come from the hills and not from The Hill.

Beyond Coal has tallied more than 300 coal-burning power units either shut down or on a phaseout schedule —though Hitt and Beyond Coal are hardly the only ones responsible for the midnighting of coal.

Aubrey McClendon

Aubrey McClendon

The late Aubrey McClendon. (Credit: Wikipedia)

McClendon was a no-holds-barred zealot for fracking. He co-founded Chesapeake Energy, then got them in early on the fracking boom of the early 21st Century.

Fracking utterly changed the worldwide energy landscape, vaulting the U.S. into the top position among oil and gas production. Fracking may have dealt the final blow to the domestic coal and nuclear power industries as natural gas became measurably more cost-efficient than either one for electric utilities.

McClendon fell hard, accused of manipulating company holdings for his own benefit. He was forced out in 2012, and a day after he was indicted by a federal grand jury for antitrust violations in 2016, McClendon died in a one-vehicle crash, as he veered off the road at high speed, hitting a concrete bridge abutment head-on. His death was ruled an accident.

Michael Mann

Michael Mann

Michael Mann. (Credit: psu.edu)

Years ago, Mann was a mild-mannered, respected climate scientist who stuck to the science and didn't play politics.

His "hockey stick" graph explaining the rapid growth of CO2 and corresponding rise in temperatures has drawn focused attacks for a decade. So has a poorly-worded email that was part of the thousands of stolen scientists' emails in 2009.

Mann deflected a sustained legal challenge from Virginia's Attorney General and much more. All of which has turned Mann into a Happy Warrior – a thick-skinned scientist willing to return denier fire.

Mann is a prolific speaker, author and interviewee, and a sometimes-snarky social media juggernaut.

Daniel Pauly

Daniel Pauly

Daniel Pauly (Credit: ucsc.edu)

Pauly, a professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia, has challenged many industry-influenced studies that he feels downplay the dire state of global fisheries, thus making himself roundly unpopular in fishing communities.

Pauly has often gone beyond fish-counting, wading into related policy matters. He's staunchly opposed to government fishing subsidies, and has warned that global fishing policy is a saltwater "Ponzi scheme" that's waiting to be exposed.

Fred vom Saal

Fred vom Saal (left) (Credit: Brian Bienkowski)

In the 1990's, this soft-spoken University of Missouri researcher linked the plastics additive bisphenol-A (BPA) to human reproductive disorders. Vom Saal and his colleagues have taken predictable flack from industry advocates ever since even as, like climate change, his work is validated more each year.

Ken Ward, Jr.

Ken Ward Jr.

Ken Ward Jr. (Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Consider West Virginia's coal industry a politically irresistible force. For 28 years, Ken Ward Jr. was its immovable object.

As politicians and businesses danced to Big Coal's tune, Ward was the hard-nosed reporter who never learned how to dance.

Keeping an entire state honest is tough work, and until his resignation on Feb. 24, Ward was always up to the job. In recent years, the Charleston Gazette-Mail has been downsized, bought and sold, and re-shaped. To date, Ward has been mum about the reasons for his abrupt departure, but promises he'll have a voice soon, and often.

Lois Gibbs

Lois Gibbs (Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize)

It's been more than forty years since massive contamination was discovered beneath the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, NY. And Lois Gibbs is still angry.

Her conversion from angry housewife to community activist to national leader is the environmental blockbuster that's yet to be made.

And her Center for Health and Environmental Justice has served as the armory for thousands of urban, suburban and rural communities fighting to protect themselves against bureaucratic inertia, armies of corporate lawyers, and mountains of hazardous waste.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

This list of ten could be thousands. Contact Dykstra with your favorites at pdykstra@ehn.org or on Twitter at @Pdykstra.

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