Another Record Month for Global Warming Highlights the Importance of Climate Justice

June 17, 2016 | 10:13 am
Astrid Caldas
Senior Climate Scientist

I was in Miami this week, and yes, it was HOT. Nothing new there, it is Miami after all. I’ll have more on Miami and climate justice soon, but first a bit on the science.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just released its numbers for global May temperature, which show that yes, it was another record warm month, the 13th in a row. NOAA measured May at 0.87⁰C (1.57⁰F) above the average global May temperatures in the 20th century, a “very large value” according to the agency, and named it the highest ever for the period of 1880-2016. Even though this value is slightly below the unprecedented high values of the past few months (since October 2015 all records were by more than 1⁰C above average), it is still significant.

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA

The heat is on—and is slated to continue for a while

The record warm temperatures have been driven mainly by warm sea surface temperatures, which surely got a heat booster from the El Niño that is currently in demise.

El Niño is characterized by warmer-than-usual ocean waters in the eastern Pacific, and the one this year was a whopper. The atmosphere is warmed from below, and oceans contribute to warming through convection (the water vapor above it) and conduction: the exchange of heat between the surface of the ocean and the air above it. The latter played a big role in the recent warming records, according to NOAA, who called this type of exchange “a much simpler method” of heat exchange.

Because ocean water takes longer to cool off, there is still quite a bit of heat there to keep contributing to future records—a cool off is expected, but with a lag of a few months. The possibility of a La Niña starting this fall (currently forecasted as having a 70% chance of occurring) could add to the much-welcome ocean cooling.

But regardless, the impacts of the past record warm months are being felt not only through a multitude of extreme events (such as wildfires) that were made more likely or more intense by global warming, but also on a much more subtle, and frequently unnoticed way.

Climate change impacts minorities differently—and usually more

But back to Miami. I was there for the US Climate Action Network (USCAN) annual conference, where we discussed issues related to climate change, and strategized actions to address them. The temperature was decidedly a few degrees higher due to the energy in the room—and on the street. We staged a rally for climate justice and action on climate by the local authorities.

USCAN attendees and other demonstrators gathered on June 14th in XX area from the USCAN conference. See #USCAN2016 and #peoplesclimate on twitter for more of their stories. Photo: Astrid Caldas

USCAN attendees and other demonstrators gathered on June 14 in Miami. See #USCAN2016 and #peoplesclimate on twitter for more of their stories. Photo: Astrid Caldas

Climate justice is about giving everyone equal treatment and equal opportunities to face the challenges of climate change, and leaving nobody behind.

It has an ethical component in addition to a political and environmental one, especially because the communities that suffer the brunt of climate change are the least responsible for it (such as much of the global south).

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been working in Miami and other locations to further climate justice and engage disadvantaged citizens in the climate movement. We are providing scientific support to equip and empower local experts to bring their issues to the table with local authorities, and demand accountability and transparency. We have also been working to define resilience principles that highlight support for equitable outcomes and ensure that resources are allocated for all.

UCS Southeast Climate Advocate and longtime Florida resident Nicole Hernandez Hammer speaks to a group of scientists and advocates about the need for climate justice in Miami. Photo: Astrid Caldas

UCS Southeast Climate Advocate and longtime Florida resident Nicole Hernandez Hammer speaks to a group of scientists and advocates about the need for climate justice in Miami. Photo: Astrid Caldas

A call for climate justice

Miami-Dade county is predicted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to see an increase of one foot in sea level by about 2040, and while it has done much to increase resilience and protect itself against the threat of sea level rise, it has not done it consistently across its socioeconomic scale.

In fact, many of the disadvantaged, predominantly black and Spanish-speaking communities, have been left behind not only in the county resilience efforts, but on the information side. For example, many residents who see “sunny day flooding,” where there is no precipitation but instead the flood is caused by sea water coming up through the drains, are not aware that it is due to sea level rise and the fact that the old, gravity-based drainage system is acting as a conduit for sea water to actually come into their neighborhoods.

When that happens, according to interviews conducted by UCS, children cannot make it to the school bus, people cannot go to work, and their lives are severely disrupted. It is important that their plight is brought to the attention of authorities, and that resilience efforts are planned and carried.

Will 2016 be a record warm year?

The average global temperature across land and sea for the year to date is also a record, having broken the previous January-May record of 2015 by 0.24⁰C (0.43⁰F). It sure looks like 2016 could be another record warm year. The jury is still out but because 2016 had a good head start with the record warm first five months, and because the oceans are still very warm, there is a good chance that it can be nominally a record warm year—meaning values could be above 2015 but not by a huge amount or not because of a consistently warm streak across all months. Still, global warming continues, and its impacts and consequences are not far behind—in fact, as stated above, many are already here.

Climate action is essential to ensure a future with less climate impacts, less warming, and more equity. Transitioning to renewables and steeply reducing emissions from coal, gas, and oil are the main strategies for change, and information is the vehicle for this change.

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA