Another Record-Breaking Year for Climate Change

, former climate scientist, Climate & Energy Program | January 3, 2013, 3:14 pm EDT
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It’s virtually certain that 2012 will be the warmest year on record for the continental United States. When scientists affirm these results, they’ll no doubt make headlines. But we should put that record in perspective. The continental U.S. covers just 2 percent of the Earth’s surface. Globally, we’re set to have another very hot year, likely in the top 10 according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Looking further back, the past 35 years have all exceeded the 20th century average global temperature. That’s a generational shift. Half the U.S. population is 35 or younger, so half of all Americans have never lived through an “average” year.

Some scientists call this a “new normal,” but there’s nothing “normal” about it compared to the climate many of us grew up with. As heat-trapping emissions from burning coal and gas and destroying tropical forests build up in the atmosphere, the climate is changing faster than anything nature would produce on its own. Given how quickly climate change is unfolding, today’s “new normal” will quickly become the “old normal” and old records will keep being broken.

Extreme weather and climate

One of the most immediate ways we experience a changing climate is through shifts in weather extremes. And the weather we experienced this year gives us a strong taste of what future climate change could deliver.

The 2012 Drought in America withered corn crops across the Midwest. Source: Shotaku; Flickr Commons

This year’s summer heat waves were some of the hottest in our history. Longer, more intense heat waves are one of the clearest links scientists see between global warming and changes in weather.

If there were no climate change, we’d be just as likely to break record low temperatures as we are to break record highs. But the United States broke about 300,000 record highs but less than 150,000 record lows over a recent ten year time period. Over time, new heat records are further outpacing new cold records.

We also saw drought cover more than half the country, withering crops and decimating cattle herds. Scientists also see a clear link between climate change and increased drought in some regions. Consequently, farmers, ranchers and water managers can no longer count on “normal” precipitation patterns.

Finally, we saw Sandy, a storm with a price tag in the tens of billions of dollars. As our planet warms, ice on glaciers melts and the ocean heats and expands, making sea levels rise. In New York City, water levels are 11 to 16 inches higher than they were a century ago, allowing Sandy to ride in on a super-high tide. Now every coastal storm has the potential to punch further inland and inundate more homes and businesses.

Hurricane Sandy hits the U.S. East Coast. In New York City, water levels are 11 to 16 inches higher than they were a century ago. Devastating flood damage extended farther inland as a result. Source: NOAA

Following the wrong path

Future climate change will depend on the energy choices we make today and how the climate system responds to our emissions. The United States and other countries have pledged to limit warming to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. But policies currently in place won’t meet that goal. Instead, we’re on track to experience more than 7 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

That wouldn’t be a “new normal.” That would be a different planet.

Our own National Academy of Sciences, founded by Abraham Lincoln to inform policymakers about science, concluded that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for human and natural systems. Nearly every national academy of science the world over and scores of scientific societies affirm these basic findings.

But misinformation from special interests has sown doubt and confusion about climate science among the public and policymakers.

That has to change. There’s nothing ideological or partisan about first responders planning for the toll increased summer heat can take on seniors. Or farmers taking a hard look at the future for their crops. Or coastal planners anticipating how fast sea levels are rising near valuable beaches.

Post-Sandy, conversations about climate change have a new urgency.

Using science to inform planning and find solutions

We can be more creative in planning and building resilient communities. There are win-win solutions to address the underlying causes of climate change. For instance, energy efficiency reduces heat-trapping emissions and also helps power companies manage demand during heat waves. Reducing emissions that cause climate change can also help improve air quality and health.

Policymakers shouldn’t put climate change — and the best available, most accurate science, that informs our responses to it — on the back burner.

As our climate changes, it will almost certainly keep delivering more wake up calls like this year’s extreme weather.  It’s time for us to get to work finding solutions and making sure we’re prepared for the impacts that are still to come.

**This post originally appeared as an op-ed carried by the McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, which provides content to dozens of newspapers across the country.


Posted in: Global Warming

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  • “Inter Planetary Time Shares”
    Unless you are fortunate enough to have a “Time Share” on another Planet, you had better recognize that we DO NOT live on a Planet with “Infinite” Open Space to be used as someone’s PROFIT GENERATING, PRIVATE PLAYGROUND.
    All Nations must survive under NATURE’S, one and only, BIO-DOME, an Atmospherically “Finite”, “Closed System”. Where, if anything is broken or corrupted, it cannot be fixed or replaced! As with our Two(2) most Essential, Un-Fixable and Irreplaceable Components: the Air we Breath and the Water we Drink. Once gone, these two components are, not only Gone, but Gone Forever! Man-Made Pollution, aided by Global Warming -whose causes may be argued but whose presence is palpable, are inflicting, and will continue to inflict, an insidious toll on our supply of Breathable Air and Drinkable Water.
    As All Nations do reside under this one, GLOBAL BIO-DOME, ergo, when any Nation Pollutes, sooner or later, all Nations will eventually suffer the consequences of that Pollution! THE ONLY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE POLLUTION SPEWED INTO THE AIR BY THE BURNING OF COAL, or other types of Pollution, IN CHINA OR HERE, IS THE TIME IT WILL TAKE FOR THAT POLLUTION TO ACCUMULATE AND BE MOVED BY PREVAILING WINDS OR OCEAN TIDES UNDER THE “DOME”, FROM CHINA TO HERE -AND WE ARE DOWNWIND ROM CHINA, or elsewhere!
    NATURE’S BIO-DOME is filling up inexorably, Top to Bottom and Bottom to Top, faster than we can pump it out. Even if we could possibly pump it out, there would be no place to pump it to?
    We are becoming a planetary “Titanic”. And that legendary “Iceberg” is getting inexorably closer every day of continued world-wide Pollution!
    Due to obsessive GREED and Ignorance, we have long abandoned any and all respect for our Environment. And Mother Nature will never cease to retaliate against our sociopathic disdain for her Balanced Environment. We had better wake up to the fact that alternative, renewable, non-polluting Energy sources are a MUST and are needed NOW! Because Mother Nature never sleeps and she is growing weary of our attempts to destroy the Environmental Balance she worked centuries to perfect!
    There is little question that the Petroleum and Coal industries, with their Billions of dollars of under ground inventory, will not find any form of Renewable Energy sources to their liking.
    Be that as it may, they, as all us, must eventually accept the Maxim that: “Change is, and always will be, the only constant.”
    We had better turn our attention from too much Federal Spending and leaving Future Generations mired in Debt, to worrying more about leaving Future Generations a Planet with Breathable Air and Clean Drinking Water!
    Tom Nass
    5th Marine Division – WWII

  • Carolin Schellhorn

    Unfortunately, the U.S. is not alone in contributing to this problem, but if we managed to significantly reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, we could more credibly challenge other nations, particularly China, to do the same. That would benefit humanity as a whole (including the current owners and operators of coal-fired power plants, who may have to transition into other activities.) In fact, realistically, there may be no other viable alternative.

  • Universal Movement of Consciousness by Edson Udson (all rights reserved)
    A great movement for peace, love and freedom around of the world, but to obtain results and do solve problems as poverty, abuses and violence is necessary “union” and “good will” translated in a simple word…”love”. Respecting and preserving the nature or combating differences as racism, sexuality or culture and accepting any kind of love, no discriminating anyone in anywhere for anything. I believe it be possible…because love, respect and freedom are all of good.
    for worldwide children

  • It is shocking to me to observe just how little attention we (globally) are paying to the issues of climate change that are looming – and looming fast. I come from a building and engineering background and I am interested in the need for new systems of shelter and survival.

    7 degrees warming by the end of the century is likely to render most of the planet virtually uninhabitable as we know it. The increasing severity of storms of all kinds, earthquakes and fire are creating destructive impacts on communities in many parts of the world.

    Hundreds of millions if not billions of people will need to migrate. Will the human being survive? Only if we give it the attention it deserves and we take immediate and massive action – what a challenge!