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18 things that made history in 2016

Stack of newspapers

Some years pass with little fanfare or notice—it’s safe to say that 2016 has not been one of those years. From the ever-present US presidential election to the mid-summer Brexit referendum, if one word has defined this year, it might be “surprise.”

However you feel about the events of this year that will soon be consigned to history, it’s hard to deny that much has happened in the past 12 months. To that end, we asked our School of International Service faculty members what moments, news, and developments they think will be penned into the history books from the year 2016. From the highs to the lows, here are 18 things from 2016—in no particular order—that our experts say will be remembered for years to come:

The US Army Corps of Engineers denied the Dakota Access Pipeline permit. This is an enormous, though precarious, victory for water rights, environmental and climate justice, and indigenous rights. Tribal communities and solidarity delegations from around the country and hemisphere have gathered at Standing Rock since April to protect sacred sites, native burial grounds, and the Missouri River, while withstanding over-militarized policing and blizzards. Improbably, they leveraged enough power to block a massive pipeline with deeply vested political and financial backing. This is historical and sets a precedent for tribal communities around the world, as well as for communities facing the environmental risks of oil and gas extraction and pipelines; it demonstrates, and perhaps augments, grassroots resistance against a dominant and largely unregulated, subsidized fossil fuel industry. Though the incoming administration shows an antagonistic disdain for natural resources, environmental science, and communities bearing the brunt of ecological crises, this just makes the Standing Rock victory all the more exemplary.

—Garrett Graddy-Lovelace

It is arguably impossible to exaggerate the history-making and future-shaping importance of the 2016 US presidential election. I see no end of terrifying implications that could follow in the wake of the inexplicable decision by many to elect the most unqualified person to be nominated for president by a major political party in American history. Mr. Trump’s impulsive and often odious behavior, his lack of knowledge about how the US government and the economy work, his antediluvian view on foreign affairs, and his choice of an outspoken bigot as his chief strategist collectively instill no confidence—at least in me—that he will make America greater or great again. Future history books are likely to point out that, once again, massive tax cuts for the rich are a wholly inadequate, misplaced strategy for stimulating economic growth. Such tax cuts would provide little relief to the disaffected voters who bought into the change promised by candidate Trump.

—Stephen D. Cohen

This marks the first time in modern US history that one of the country's territories entered into default, and the first time that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, specifically, ever defaulted. The financial problems of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico reached a boiling point in mid-2016, when the authorities there stopped paying most of their debts, including their General Obligation bonded debt, which ranks at the top of their constitutionally mandated priorities. Despite its small size, Puerto Rico is the third largest issuer of municipal debt in the United States after California and New York, with more than $70 billion of bonds and loans outstanding and in the investment portfolios of millions of Americans.

—Arturo Porzecanski

The Flint water crisis exposed the importance of the history of urban spaces and revealed a long history of racialized urban planning in which the properties, and consequently tax bases, of rust belt cities are systematically devalued. Racial segregation in Flint, as in so many other cities, was reproduced by the Home Owners Loan Corporation and Federal Housing Administration, while a shift from manufacturing to service-based industry also gutted the finances of the former auto city. Flint also reminds us that much of the infrastructure in American cities is crumbling and we are not immune to water disruptions and contamination. Moving forward, minority communities in these cities are likely at risk of becoming the next Flint because of the age of the housing stock in which they live and spatial strategies that may deliberately leave residents voiceless and shut out of urban decision-making.

—Malini Ranganathan

This will go down as the year ISIS began its decline. We will get other violent movements, but this is the beginning of the end for ISIS, which has been forced out of 50 places it once controlled, including Ramadi, Fallujah, and soon Mosul.

—Joe Young

On June 23, a divided electorate in Britain voted to leave the European Union. In the immediate aftermath, Britain’s currency, the pound sterling, crashed as markets scrambled to make sense of the impact on trade and investment. The deep divisions in Britain across generations, regions, and party affiliations have unleashed a veritable array of political, legal, and economic challenges, as well as spikes in intolerance and racism. Six months on, the issue has generated larger constitutional questions about the separation of powers. Remarkably, in live proceedings before the British Supreme Court, a body only established in 2009, constitutional questions about who has the authority to trigger Brexit highlight the enormity of the challenges ahead.

—Michelle Egan

Although Zika started spreading in 2015, the World Health Organization declared it an emergency in February 2016. In addition to its health impacts, Zika will be remembered for the political response it fostered. While the World Health Organization tried to avoid the mistakes of Ebola, the governments of many affected countries refused to increase access to reproductive health care. With globalization linking us ever more closely together, we will unfortunately see more of such diseases in the future, and need to be prepared to manage their associated politics.

—Rachel Robinson

This was the first time a US president traveled to Cuba since 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge went there to attend a conference of the Pan American Union, marking a significant step by both Obama and Castro to make changes in the relationship, and ending nearly sixty years of tension and hostility between these two neighbors. On November 25, Fidel Castro passed away at age 90 in Cuba, and just days later, the first US commercial flight to Havana landed in the capital city.

—Philip Brenner

This new law is the first amendment to be passed which updates the obsolete provisions of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Prior to this amendment, the EPA was required to present potential cause of harm before chemicals could be safety tested, and thousands of chemicals already sold on the market were grandfathered in as to not require safety testing. The new amendment gives preference to health-based safety standards over cost-benefit standards, which, in the past, favored economic considerations and required application of only the “least burdensome” regulations. The previous standards allowed harmful substances like asbestos to stay on the market. Thankfully, the Lautenberg Act prioritizes standards which would ban these types of chemicals and provides increased protection to the most at-risk populations, including pregnant women, children, workers, and the elderly.

—Adam Diamond

After more than 40 years of civil war, the Colombian government and the main rebel army signed a peace agreement, including detailed plans for rural development, inclusive political participation, transitional justice, and alternatives to illicit crops. The Colombian government then took the very unusual step of submitting the peace agreement to a national referendum, which, to the shock of most observers, lost by a thin margin. After a new round of negotiations, a revised peace agreement addressed some of the critics’ objections and it looks likely to move towards legislation and implementation.

—Jonathan Fox

The $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a new Chinese-led multilateral development bank that reflects a more muscular Chinese international economic presence. The bank opened its doors in January 2016 with 57 founding member states, which notably did not include the United States or Japan. It reflects, in part, Chinese frustration with the dominant World Bank and International Monetary Fund's response to China’s more powerful role in the global economy.

—Tamar Gutner

The TPP did not get passed in 2016—a surprising and pivotal non-event of the year. This massive trade agreement looked imminent, but garnered scathing critiques by progressive, anti-corporate Democrats and a neo-mercantilist, nationalist Republican in the presidential election. Middle America expressed deep-seated frustration with outsourced manufacturing jobs and lack of effective “job churn.” Food safety experts warned of weakening regulations, while agrarian justice coalitions bemoaned a race to the bottom on farmgate prices globally. The sheer lack of transparency of the agreement and its negotiations, the disproportionate influence of transnational corporations, and its expansion of investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms triggered opposition as well. Ultimately, even centrist, heretofore neoliberal Democrats joined the anti-free trade tirade. Analysts view this derailment as a confluence of phenomena: populist frustration with unfulfilled neoliberal economic promises and corporate concentration, and troubling, racist, proto-nationalist xenophobia. Post-Trump and Brexit, does the fall of TPP signal a blow to neoliberal trade, and if so: what comes next?

—Garrett Graddy-Lovelace

The Paris Climate Agreement came into force in record-breaking speed on November 4, 2016, taking less than a year for countries to approve the accord. This is a milestone of 2016 since it marks a moment when the entire global community made a collective and shared commitment to address climate change. If the agreement survives political attack, it will represent a great turning in humanity’s future and in the fate of all life on Earth.

—Paul Wapner

In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major party—the Democratic Party. She is the first woman to win the popular vote in a presidential election, winning more than 65 million votes. Although she didn’t win in the Electoral College and thus lost the election, her accomplishment represents a historic step in the 227-year journey of women toward the American presidency.

—James Goldgeier

One of the most important events of 2016 was invisible to the naked eye. In September 2016, scientists announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was unlikely, in the foreseeable future, to drop again below 400 parts per million. This sounds arcane, but carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. The last time carbon dioxide concentrations were this high, human beings didn't exist. The crossing of the 400 parts per million threshold signals a new, more turbulent and risky climatic state—one that people will be struggling to wrestle with and adjust to for countless generations to come.

—Simon Nicholson

Populist radical right parties will remain a reality in Europe. Mainstream parties have struggled to answer or address concerns about inequality, stagnating wages, and migration in Europe, and as a result, the populist right—with nativist, anti-establishment, and illiberal messages—drives home their message of a “cultural backlash” against the excesses of liberalism and globalization, and seize on the US election for its narrative of “confounding expectations.” While Europe lets out a sigh of relief in Austria, where (only) 46% voted for the radical right candidate, the electoral “success” shouldn’t overshadow the transformative effect occurring in mainstream parties.

—Michelle Egan

Brazil faced a maelstrom of misfortunes in the last year, many related to the drama of the Car Wash corruption investigation that has enveloped the massive Petrobras state-owned oil firm since late 2015. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was impeached at the end of August for fiscal mismanagement, while her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, faces three corruption charges out of the Car Wash case, and her successor Michel Temer’s party is under the shadow of an even-weightier array of allegations. The bad news out of Brazil has been further complicated by the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, an economic recession in its third year, and a variety of corruption investigations unrelated to Petrobras. The only solace came from the August Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, which provided Brazilians a slight respite from the dual political and economic crisis.

—Matthew Taylor

This year, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians 8–7 in the 10th inning of game seven of the World Series to win the championship for the first time in 108 years. Many claim that the win ended a 71-year curse placed on the team by Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern owner, who was denied entry to a game during the team’s 1945 run at the World Series because he brought his pet goat, which Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley allegedly said stunk. Triumphing in a nail-biter of a World Series and final game—including a 17-minute rain delay—the Cubs may be the biggest winners of 2016.