Despite the big blizzard, the world is still on fire


You didn’t have to live in the Northeastern United States to be in thrall of the big blizzard this weekend. The massive coastal storm brought near-record snowfall totals to New York City and Philadelphia, caused coastal flooding on a scale not seen since Superstorm Sandy more than three years ago, and wreaked havoc on air, train, and car travel up and down the eastern half of the United States.

Blizzards can have another impact: They can complicate the political discussion about global warming — with doubters questioning how the planet can be warming when there’s such frigid weather. In fact, the pace of severe winter storms in the United States like 2012’s Superstorm Sandy — especially along the densely populated Eastern Seaboard — seems to have increased in recent years. And the thing is, the process we call climate change — with a layer of greenhouse-gas pollution leading to higher average temperatures that are spread unevenly across land and sea — not only doesn’t prevent severe winter storms, but it may strengthen them. That’s because the waters of the North Atlantic are unseasonably warm this winter (caused by man-made climate change, according to the experts) and thus the collision of Arctic fronts with warmer, moist air is what gives 21st Century blizzards such intensity.

Right before this weekend’s super snowstorm, there was a piece of environmental news that confirms that Mother Earth is on fire these days:

NOAA and NASA have announced that 2015 was by far the hottest year on record globally. In fact,NOAA reports that “2015 is Earth’s warmest year by widest margin on record.” 2015 set the record for setting records!

While global temperature records are normally measured in hundredths of degrees Fahrenheit, NOAA reports 2015 crushed the previous record just set in 2014 by nearly three tenths of a degree, or 0.29°F (0.16°C) above the previous record, which was set in 2014.

Last month was not just the hottest December on record, blowing out the previous record (set in 2014) by a staggering half degree — 0.52°F (0.29°C). NOAA reports “The December temperature departure from average was also the highest departure among all months in the historical record and the first time a monthly departure has reached +2°F from the 20th century average.”

The NOAA and NASA findings are consistent with other key global surface temperature datasets. For instance, Berkeley Earth — originally funded in part by deniers like Charles Koch to disprove global warming — reported last week that “2015 was unambiguously the hottest year on record.”

The blowout record warmth of 2015 erases the notion of a so-called pause in warming. NASA and Columbia University climatologists explain that “the updated global temperature record makes it clear that there was no global warming ‘hiatus’.” Similarly, Berkeley Earth’s Scientific Director Richard Muller, says 2015 “confirms our previous interpretation” that “global warming has not slowed.”

This is a big story; ironically, it didn’t get as much news coverage as it should have — perhaps because the major news outlets based in New York City and Washington were too focused on preparations for the East Coast blizzard. Indeed, in the past, conservative foes of action on climate change — in the right-wing media and in the corridors of Congress — have jumped on snowstorms or the occasional polar vortex of extremely cold weather to ridicule the idea that the planet is getting hotter. One Republican senator even threw a snowball on the floor of the Capitol a couple of years back in order to claim that global warming is a hoax.

Their argument is ridiculous, as shown by the actual data. The numbers for 2015 are beyond debate — the world is already hotter due to human activity, and the pace of change is accelerating. One more irony about the East Coast blizzard is that it caused Congress to cancel its work this week. But when members come back in February, climate change needs to be at the top of its agenda.

Read more from ThinkProgress on 2015 as the hottest year on record:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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