2015 was a year that shook us out of complacency.
Black Lives Matter forced the nation to confront the threat of police violence faced every day by African Americans. The refugee crisis coupled with the movement of ISIS into Europe and the United States brought distant wars close to home.
It was a year of new activism in defense of black lives and the life of the planet, new focus on the underlying causes of inequality, and evidence of a deep reservoir of compassion that motivated millions in a time of crisis.
The descent of the Republican presidential debate into new lows of demagoguery highlighted the emptiness of political discourse. And across the country, communities experienced the torrential downpours, record temperatures, floods, droughts, and firestorms predicted by climate change models.
But 2015 also brought breakthroughs. It was a year of new activism in defense of black lives and the life of the planet, new focus on the underlying causes of inequality, and evidence of a deep reservoir of compassion that motivated millions in a time of crisis.
Here are my top picks for new possibilities from 2015 that suggest we could be at a turning point.
1. The world set ambitious goals for climate stabilization, but real leadership came from the grassroots.
World leaders met in Paris and agreed that temperatures must remain within 1.5 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels to avert catastrophes of all sorts. And then they signed an agreement that fell far short of accomplishing that.
We learned that temperatures are already up by 1 C, and the effects are being felt. It was a year of biblical firestorms in the West and historic flooding across the South, and while there was temporary relief from drought in California, long-term predictions remain dismal for those relying on the sparse water resources of the Southwest.
There were important steps toward real solutions, nonetheless.
Wind now accounts for nearly 5 percent of electricity generation.
As the cost of wind and solar energy generation has fallen, the United State has experienced a renewables boom. Wind now accounts for nearly 5 percent of electricity generation, up from 1 percent just eight years ago.
Solar energy installation is up about 19 percent compared to 2014, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association; about a third of all new electricity generation came from solar during the first three quarters of 2015.
Carbon dioxide emissions actually fell globally in 2015. Toxic pollution levels spurred a reduction in coal burning in China and a major ramp-up of renewables.
And investors like HSBC have concluded that investments in fossil fuels are at risk of becoming worthless as energy economics, technology, and climate policy move the world toward renewables. With the record low price of oil "many unconventional oil sectors, such as oil sands, shale oil, and Arctic drilling, have become loss-making in a relatively short period of time," stated a recent HSBC report.
From the state level down, people are pressing for commonsense policies like a budget-neutral carbon tax.
Leadership for a more sustainable world is coming not from government, business, and the media, which are too immersed in the status quo to lead the profound change needed. Instead, real leadership is coming from small and medium-sized businesses and the grassroots, where activists are resisting new dirty energy mines, drilling, fracking, and infrastructure projects like pipelines and ocean terminals.
From the state level down, people are pressing for commonsense policies like a budget-neutral carbon tax. The city council of Portland, Oregon, unanimously adopted a resolution in November to oppose the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure.
2. Black Lives Matters changed hearts, minds and policing practices.
The Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter have changed the discussion of racial justice, spreading out from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, New York, Oakland, and Baltimore.
Their messages have had particularly profound effects on college campuses, including the University of Missouri, where President Tim Wolfe was forced to resign, and Ithaca College, where students and faculty voted no confidence in President Thomas Rochon following a series of racially charged incidents.
Half of all Americans now see racism as a big problem -- up from just a quarter in 2009 -- and the number of those who say more equality is needed jumped from 46 percent to 59 percent in just over a year. According to the Pew Center for People and the Press, this shift in public opinion has occurred across demographics and geographic regions. Even 41 percent of Republicans say racism is a big problem (compared to 34 percent who say it is not).
Half of all Americans now see racism as a big problem--up from just a quarter in 2009
In Chicago, outrage over the October 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald spilled over into a citywide campaign. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired the Chicago chief of police after a dashcam video, released more than a year after the killing, showed events that were much different than what police had reported. The Justice Department is investigating and Emanuel has apologized for the incident and promised "complete and total reform," but protesters are calling for his resignation.
3. Bernie Sanders forced inequality and the power of Wall Street into the national debate.
The wave of endorsements from the Washington powerful and the virtual blackout by corporate media of opposition candidates assure Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic Party presidential nomination. At least that's what political insiders say in what may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet an insurgent Democratic base has been rallying behind the Bernie Sanders campaign. Even some conservatives, discouraged by the Republican candidates, are turning to Sanders. His campaign has held massive rallies across the country and broken an all-time record for number of donations, topping 2.3 million, nearly 100,000 more than Barack Obama had received at a similar point in his campaign.
Sanders is focusing his campaign on the economic calamity that is upending the lives of the working poor and middle class.
The reason is clear: Sanders is focusing his campaign on the economic calamity that is upending the lives of the working poor and middle class. He argues that today's extreme inequality amounts to a moral crisis, and he's showing the links between stagnant wages, the massive transfer of wealth to the top one percent, and poverty. The wealthiest 20 percent of U.S. families now owns nearly 90 percent of the nation's wealth.
And speaking of moral stands, Pope Francis focused his much-anticipated address to the U.S. Congress on poverty, immigration, climate change, the death penalty, and arms sales -- not on women, gays and sexuality as his congressional hosts may have wished.