John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
This year was a time of many (often unfortunate) record firsts.
Winter is a special time of year when the nation’s top-elected climate denier, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, sometimes pulls a snow-based stunt mocking the global-warming “hoax.” After a 2010 blizzard, for example, his family built an igloo in Washington, D.C., and dubbed it “Al Gore’s New Home.” This February, the man himself hurled a snowball on the Senate floor, declaring “climate change has been occurring since the beginning of time.”
For such chicanery this December, though, Inhofe might have to make do with the slushy discharges of a Slurpee machine. It’s been so balmy in D.C. you could sunbathe on the National Mall in a Borat mankini. In fact, things are piping-hot in many places of the U.S.; at least 1,426 high-temperature records toppled to extreme warmth in just the first 13 days of the month.
The rapid saunification of the atmosphere is only one of 2015’s important climate stories. But as it’s a big deal, we might as well start with…
The Hottest Year Ever Recorded?
The “November Sweats” might become a gross and regular hygiene problem if trends persist. This past month was the warmest November in known history, with combined global temperatures hovering nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1951-1980 average. Autumn in general was also steaming—every state in the Lower 48 had abnormally high temperatures—and many are predicting 2015 will go down as the warmest year on record. We shouldn’t be too surprised if that happens, as the previous warmest year arrived only back in 2014 (and the 20 hottest years on the books have all occurred in ... the past 20 years).
Carbon Dioxide Soars
There’s a network of sensors around the planet monitoring the amount of CO2 in the air—in Hawaii, the Arctic, Chile, and elsewhere—and this May they detected that, for the first time since measurements began, the monthly global concentration of the gas had passed an average of 400 parts per million. That’s a huge deal according to a NOAA scientist, who says, “This marks the fact that humans burning fossil fuels have caused global carbon dioxide concentrations to rise more than 120 parts per million since preindustrial times. Half of that rise has occurred since 1980.” (The CO2’s stayed strong since then, hitting 401.64 ppm in Hawaii in November.)
El Niño Roars
Part of the reason things have been so sultry is El Niño, that reoccurring climate pattern marked by warm waters in the equatorial Pacific. This year’s version has become particularly fierce—maybe the strongest ever known by the time it ends—invoking comparisons to the Niño of 1997-1998 that triggered deadly flooding in California and massive forest fires in Indonesia, and also killed off about 16 percent of the world’s coral. Indeed, that latter catastrophe is reoccurring with what NOAA calls the “third global coral bleaching event ever on record” that could “last well into 2016.”
Some experts have blamed this year’s hyperactive Pacific hurricane season—which featured Patricia, the most intense hurricane recorded in the Western Hemisphere—on El Niño, while saying it also prevented hurricanes in the Atlantic. The pattern might continue to deliver rain and snow to the parched West even as it makes sure nobody in the East gets a White Christmas, as shown in this snow-depth forecast for December 25:
Climate Agreement Reached
The recent U.N. climate talks in Paris were either a rousing success or evidence the world is doomed, depending on whom you consult. On one hand, global leaders went beyond the expected ambition of limiting warming by 2 degrees Celsius, stating it should be 1.5 degrees instead. Mayors took an unusually strong stance on emissions—not surprising given that cities emit a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas—agreeing to measures like switching to 100 percent renewable energy as soon as 2050.
On the other, staying under the 1.5-degree goal will be virtually impossible, and countries party to the agreement can withdraw without legal repercussions (a big screw-you to poor nations, which had hoped to receive insurance from richer ones for rising sea levels and devastating storms). Meteorologists Bob Henson and Jeff Masters surmise: “For now, the target is mainly a statement of solidarity and empathy, given that the nation-by-nation plans submitted over the last few months would together limit global warming to perhaps 2.7°C over preindustrial levels at best.”
Now a Word From the Pope
This year Pope Francis proved he had an emo streak as well as real environmental passion, announcing that humans are turning the world into an “immense pile of filth” and, during a White House speech, saying “climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” His advocacy was met with a shower of spittle-flecked indignation from conservatives, with one Fox News pundit calling it a political gambit and Jeb Bush demanding the Pope stick to prayer-talk because “he’s not a scientist.” (Though to be fair, he does have a secondary diploma in chemistry.)
All the Rest
Too much news spewed forth from the ongoing crisis to sum up here, but these are a few other notable developments.
Wildfires. Out-of-control wildfires this year in Indonesia, likely exacerbated by El Niño, released an immense amount of carbon into the atmosphere. One expert calculated that on certain days, they poured more CO2 into the air than the whole U.S. economy. The cost of the fires will likely add up to twice that of the 2004 tsunami disaster, according to the World Bank.
Floods. The Indian city of Chennai got socked in late 2015 with its heaviest rainfall in a century. The likely culprits for the deadly floods that followed were poor urban planning and climate change—the latter because rising emissions have been tied to more-frequent outbreaks of extreme rain.
Warming warnings. In what looks to be a historic first, a city approved the placement of climate-change warning labels on gas pumps. North Vancouver’s leaders adopted the unusual PSAs to remind drivers of their personal role in the earth’s raging fever. The yet-to-be-deployed notices might carry statements like “Burning fossil fuel contributes to climate change” and “49% of GHG emissions in the City of North Vancouver are from transportation.”
All of the above. Scientists detected climate change’s undeniable fingerprint on a number of extreme-weather events in 2015, including the overall likelihood of Western wildfires, more-intense heat waves, African drought, flooding in Indonesia, hurricanes in Hawaii, and other not-fun stuff.