The internet is abuzz, 2014 was the warmest year on record and the way some in the media are portraying this, you might think the planet was going to be ice and snow free by next Tuesday. The fact that 2014 was warmer than the other two previous record years 2005 and 2010, is but one small data point. It does however show the planet is continuing warm, as it has been steadily doing for several decades.
The monthly and annual warming data has become a tool for environmentalists, politicians and the media to grab attention to their respective agendas. The media outlets love records, and one can find all sorts of eye-catching headlines in order to attract readers. Environmentalists and policy makers, like Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, made sweeping statements about this latest data point including, “The new global temperature record announced today completely exposes the myth that global warming has stopped.”
On the other side of the coin you’ll see the usual cast of characters stating the warming isn’t significant or humans aren’t having an impact on the climate. Some will comment further how cold the weather has been this January as evidence the planet isn’t warming. Silly stuff.
I found a relevant quote from Dr. John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville on the blog Reason.com. Dr. Christy works with Roy Spencer at UHA and finds slightly different results because they use a different data set, specifically satellite data. With this data set, 2014 was the third warmest year in the 36-year global satellite temperature record.
According to Dr. Christy, “2014 was warm, but not special. The 0.01 C differences between 2014 and 2005, or the 0.02 difference with 2013 are not statistically different from zero. That might not be a very satisfying conclusion, but it is at least accurate.”
According to Dr. Christy, if one reviews the most recent 13 complete calendar years, from 2002 through 2014, they have averaged 0.18 C (about 0.33 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the 30-year baseline average, while the global temperature trend during this period was a warming trend at the rate of +0.05 C per decade — which is also statistically insignificant.
The chart below shows the temperature trend as compiled by NOAA. Notice the rate of warming has slowed over the past decade and a half. On average, the climate models had predicted a more regular increase in temperature; therefore presently the overall system isn’t as warm as was predicted a decade or more ago.
Warmer World Ahead
In my opinion some of this is semantics. For the foreseeable future the overall climate is going to continue to warm. While the rate of warming could change, increasing or decreasing from present values, few scientists think we are going to see a colder planet anytime soon. Therefore shouldn’t we stop squabbling and playing marketing games with every weather event that happens? Don’t we need to better plan for how the changing climate will impact everything from the fishing industry, to agriculture or where we build our business and homes? If indeed the rising sea levels are going to envelope huge areas of the coastline why are we continuing to build there?
Here in Massachusetts and the rest of New England, the trend since 1900 is clear, we are getting warmer. We all notice the changes too. Whether it’s the fish that are migrating differently, cranberry bogs that don’t freeze, new pests, or just being able to grow our vegetables a little bit later, the climate we are living in now isn’t the same as the one of our parents or grandparents. There will be benefits to a warmer world and losses.
Humans can’t fix the climate; we can only alter how much interaction we have on it. There isn’t a solution like putting in a light at a busy intersection or upgrading to 220 amps to stop the fuses from tripping.
No one knows the truth about what the climate will look like in the year 2100, or 2200, we only can predict, based on our best climate models today, what will happen. Eventually there will be alternative forms of energy that we use to power our lives. Anthropogenic CO2 will fall and the resultant changes will happen.
What if we think about the climate issue in a way that takes a more a geological time approach to these matters. Fast forward to the year 2300, will 2014’s record warm year matter? In that future century, what would have happened in the previous 200 years to impact life then? I’m not so sure we really know the impact might not be smaller than we think today. Renewables will continue to play an increasingly larger role in our energy arsenal. As this occurs, will the rate of change really matter when viewing the problem over centuries, rather than by months or years? Do we prevent developing countries and societies from benefiting from today’s fossil fuel based technologies because we are worried about the added CO2 in the short-term?
It’s true, by several measurements 2014 was the warmest year since humans have been keeping records. The planet is changing and anthropogenic contributions are a part of those changes. In our current world of immediate news, miniscule attention spans and fight to make our cause the important and relevant one, all of this seems so very important. Instead of trying to scream the loudest or use scare tactics every time there’s a new record or a big storm, I’d love it if some of these constituents actually put these numbers in perspective, found some common ground and toned down the rhetoric. Unfortunately, I think I’d have more luck winning tonight’s lottery.