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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: The Biggest CSR Stories of 2016 -- Updated

By Mary Mazzoni

As 2016 comes to a close, it's natural to reflect on the months that passed and how they will impact our future. And this year saw no shortage of headlines pertinent to the corporate social responsibility (CSR) discussion.

To make sure you're caught up before that holiday party, we're taking a look back at the year's biggest news items -- and what's happening with them now.

Armed standoff leaves America shocked

2016 was a crazy year for news. And the action started almost immediately. In the first few days of January, a group of self-styled patriots stormed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. After pointing weapons at refuge employees, the group essentially commandeered the area -- which they held in an armed standoff with federal officials that lasted over two months.

The occupiers were led by Ammon Bundy, son of the now-notorious Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy. They claimed they sought to “educate” the local community about their rights, prevent two local ranchers from going to jail for arson, and turn the public preserve over to ranchers, loggers and miners. But members of the community were not quick to warm up to their goals -- as 3p's Tina Casey explains in her CSR analysis of the standoff.

What's happening now?: Although the refuge was left littered and damaged, all seven occupiers who faced federal charges over the incident were acquitted by a jury in Portland, Oregon, in October. One occupier tragically lost his life in an armed conflict with authorities, in what many said was an effort that was misguided from the start and benefited only a select few lobbying interests.

Supreme Court stays Clean Power Plan amidst court battle

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay that temporarily halted progress on the Clean Power Plan. The decision came after a group of states, utilities and coal companies sued the EPA over the Obama administration's landmark climate change policy, saying it was unconstitutional and infringed on state's rights. (As a refresher, the Clean Power Plan — which was updated and strengthened in August of last year — seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants.)

What's happening now? In September, with the stay still in place, the suit made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Months after arguments were initially heard, the plan is still under court review -- and the stay remains in place. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to kill the plan upon taking office. But only time will tell whether influence from companies and states in support of the plan could sway his decision.

AGs investigate ExxonMobil, Congress sparks climate science witch hunt

In November of last year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation into ExxonMobil to determine if it lied to the public or investors about climate change risks. In January, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris opened her own investigation into the company -- saying executives knew about climate change risks for decades, but failed to disclose them to investors. Before long, 17 state AGs and a group of NGOs also began looking into the company.

A few months later, the House Science Committee -- led by Texas Rep. Lamar Smith -- began issuing broad-sweeping subpoenas to the attorneys general and NGOs investigating Exxon. The committee's investigation, which many called a climate science witch hunt, continued with hearings and more requests for emails and records. But the efforts didn't stop the search for the truth: In September, the Securities and Exchange commission opened its own investigation into Exxon.

What's happening now? In December, Exxon filed suit against the AGs behind the investigation -- saying the company was being unfairly discriminated against. And with its CEO Rex Tillerson on tap to be our new Secretary of State, the company's influence in Washington is only set to grow.

Peabody declares bankruptcy, some point to the collapse of U.S. coal

In April, Peabody Energy -- America's largest private coal company, with a market cap of $20 billion in 2008 -- filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Many said the company's demise further signaled the collapse of U.S. coal -- pointing to a sharp decline in coal production, which is now a third of what it was six years ago. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted 2016 would be the biggest year-on decline for coal in history.

What's happening now? President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to revive America's coal industry and bring mining jobs back to struggling communities. But experts are dubious on whether he can make good on these promises. For its part, Peabody is in the process of restructuring -- a move CEO Glenn Kellow says "paves the way for a sustainable future" for the company.

The rise of Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement formed in 2013 in response to the high-profile killings of unarmed black men at the hands of police. It continued to grow in strength and influence in 2016, releasing a point-by-point platform in August.

TriplePundit partnered with Symantec for an editorial series on the BLM phenomenon and how companies should approach racial justice. And Alicia Garza, co-founder of the movement, was tapped for the opening keynote at the 2016 Net Impact Conference -- proving BLM isn't going away any time soon.

What's happening now? Earlier this week, the BLM movement announced its big project for 2017: an initiative to support and promote black-owned small businesses in partnership with New York ad agency J. Walter Thompson.

Tesla merges with SolarCity

This summer, Elon Musk -- cleantech visionary, Tesla CEO and SolarCity board chairman -- started hinting at the fact that Tesla may look to acquire SolarCity. The CEO made good on his promises, and put an offer before Tesla's board -- recusing himself from the final decision.

What's happening now? The $2.6 billion offer was finalized in August, and the merger officially took effect last month. Executives say the move creates the world's largest, vertically-integrated clean energy company. And they were quick to demonstrate why -- releasing plans for a low-cost solar roof and even powering a whole island with clean energy.

Paris agreement enters into force

At COP21 in Paris last year, world leaders inked the first global agreement aimed a curbing climate change. On Earth Day, leaders from 175 nations signed the agreement in "the largest one-day signing event in the history of the U.N.,” said U.S. President Barack Obama.

After signing the agreement, the next step was for countries to formalize their commitments -- and they did, in droves. The U.S. and China formally joined in September, sending up clear signals to the rest of the world. In order to come into force, at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions needed to come on board. The agreement crossed that milestone a few weeks later -- months ahead of schedule.

What's happening now? COP22 convened in Marrakesh, Morocco, in late November, where leaders discussed how to effectively implement the Paris agreement. And while President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to pull the U.S. out of the agreement, that may not be as easy as he expects. Nevertheless, other nations vowed to carry on regardless of American participation.

Dakota Access pipeline conflict mobilizes thousands

In 2014, the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota began mobilizing protests around the planned Dakota Access pipeline. The pipeline was set to carry crude oil 1,168 miles across North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, at a cost of $3.8 billion. The tribe said the pipeline, which passed within a half mile of the reservation, would put sacred sites at risk. They also expressed concern about the crossing at the Missouri River, which supplies drinking water to 17 million Americans, including the Standing Rock Sioux.

The protests reached a fever pitch over the Labor Day weekend, when the tribe accused pipeline workers of desecrating sacred burial sites. Soon after, reports emerged of company security guards using pepper spray and attack dogs on protesters, and injuries were reported on both sides. In September, a U.S. appeals court halted progress on the pipeline and put it under review -- but the standoff continued.

By November, the pipeline was completed save for the Missouri River crossing, which protesters blocked with prayer camps and their own bodies. As temperatures dipped below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, authorities reportedly sprayed protesters with water cannons -- outraging both environmentalists and human rights advocates.

What's happening now? The Obama administration and the U.S. Army Corps of engineers denied the pipeline company's rights to drill under the Missouri River, and ordered them to find an alternative route. But with the incoming Trump administration, advocates insist the fight isn't over.

Many drew comparisons to January's Oregon occupation -- insisting authorities didn't even shut off power and water to the armed occupiers, but used aggressive force against peaceful Standing Rock protesters seeking to protect their cultural heritage and water resources. Petitions are circling across the Web seeking to hold authorities accountable for injuries sustained by protesters, including partial blindness and loss of limb.

Trump's election and the rise of localities and businesses in the climate fight

In the early hours of Nov. 9, progressive Americans were shocked to learn that Republican candidate Donald Trump achieved the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the White House. Much hemming and hawing ensued in the following days. But by late November, those resolved to tackle climate change had regrouped and assembled a plan.

On Nov. 21, a group of businesses sent an open letter to Trump telling him to take climate change seriously -- emphasizing that they would continue to cut emissions despite executive action. A few days later, a group of 37 mayors did the same.

What's happening now? While Trump continues to promote fossil fuels and stack his cabinet with climate deniers, businesses -- as well as local and state governments -- aren't budging. Business leaders gathered in -- gasp, Florida? -- earlier this month to discuss climate action in a Trump administration. Tech employees spoke out about their refusal to participate in plans to dismantle climate policy and create a "Muslim registry." And California Gov. Jerry Brown said his state will move forward on climate research, even if Trump defunds such efforts at NASA and elsewhere.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Matt Johnson; 2) Flickr/USFWS-Pacific Region; 3) Flickr/Ryan J. Reilly; 4) @chriskendigphotography, courtesy of Net Impact (press use only); 5) Flickr/Joe Brusky

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni