Global warming accelerated since the 1970s and broke more countries’ temperature records than ever before in the first decade of the new millennium, United Nations climate experts said Wednesday.
A new analysis from the World Meteorological Organization says average land and ocean surface temperatures from 2001 to 2010 rose above the previous decade, and were almost a half-degree Celsius above the 1961-1990 global average.
The decade ending in 2010 was an unprecedented era of climate extremes, the agency said, evidenced by heat waves in Europe and Russia, droughts in the Amazon Basin, Australia and East Africa, and huge storms like Tropical Cyclone Nargis and Hurricane Katrina.
Data from 139 nations show that droughts like those in Australia, East Africa and the Amazon Basin affected the most people worldwide. But it was the hugely destructive and deadly floods such as those in Pakistan, Australia, Africa, India and Eastern Europe that were the most frequent extreme weather events.
Experts say a decade is about the minimum length of time to study when it comes to spotting climate change.
From 1971 to 2010, global temperatures rose by an average rate of 0.17 degrees Celsius per decade. But going back to 1880, the average increase was .062 percent degrees Celsius per decade.
The pace also picked up in recent decades. Average temperatures were 0.21 degrees Celsius warmer this past decade than from 1991 to 2000, which were in turn 0.14 degrees Celsius warmer than from 1981 to 1990.
Natural cycles between atmosphere and oceans make some years cooler than others, but during the past decade there was no major event associated with El Nino, the phenomenon characterized by unusually warm temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Much of the decade was affected by the cooling La Nina, which comes from unusually cool temperatures there, or neutral conditions.
Given those circumstances, WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud says the data doesn’t support the notion among some in the scientific community of a slowdown, or lull, in the pace of planetary warming in recent years.
“The last decade was the warmest, by a significant margin,” he said. “If anything we should not talk about the plateau, we should talk about the acceleration.”
Jarraud says the data show warming accelerated between 1971 and 2010, with the past two decades increasing at rates never seen before amid rising concentrations of industrial gases that trap heat in the atmosphere like a greenhouse.
By the end of 2010, the report shows, atmospheric concentrations of some of the chief warming gases from fossil fuel burning and other human actions were far higher than at the start of the industrial era in 1750. Carbon dioxide concentrations measured in the air around the world rose 39 percent since then; methane rose 158 percent; and nitrous oxide was up 20 percent.
So what are going to do about this?
Seven years ago, many Americans learned about climate disruption at the movies. During the past year, they experienced it firsthand. Last year, superstorm Sandy was just part of $110 billion in disaster-related climate damage in this country, and each of the 12 years since the turn of the century has ranked among the 14 warmest on record.
At this point, the American people don’t need to be told that climate disruption is a problem. But they do need to know what we can do about it. Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Every day, the dirty-fuel industry works to sell the idea that we would be helpless without its product. From CEOs and lobbyists to corrupt politicians and media mouthpieces—they want to make sure that fossil fuels maintain a lock on American politics and energy production. They want to bathe fossil fuels in an aura of inevitability. We need oil, coal, and gas from tar sands, mountaintop-removal mining, and fracking because, well, “we always have and always will.”
To move forward on climate disruption, we must cast away that aura forever. We can start by highlighting something most people still don’t know:
Here in the in the US, we’re already approaching a tipping point in the battle against climate disruption.
Decades from now, we’ll look back and see this as the moment when we started winning. How can this be? We’ve done it by targeting the biggest sources of carbon pollution and starting a clean-energy revolution.
Climate enemy number-one, of course, is coal-fired power. Coal pollutes and destroys at every step—as it is mined, as it is transported on dusty railways, as it is burned, and as its waste is dumped upon the landscape. Over the the past decade, however, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, largely driven by grassroots volunteers in neighborhoods directly affected by coal pollution, not only has stopped the proposed construction of 175 new coal plants but also has helped secure the retirement of 144 existing plants.
Largely owing to the success of the EP and other grassroots campaigns, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by the United States has reached a 20-year low. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, during the past six years the U.S. has cut carbon emissions more than any other country. As dirty coal comes offline, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that we’re not replacing one problem with another by allowing fracked natural gas to suppress the growth of clean energy like solar and wind.
What about other sources of pollution, like the cars and trucks we drive? It turns out we’re making big progress here, as well. It started in California with a bill to limit greenhouse gases from tailpipes. More than a dozen other states copied California’s bill. And then the Obama administration followed suit.
Then, late last year, the Obama administration announced new standards for how many miles a passenger vehicle will be required to drive on a gallon of gas. You may have heard about this 54.5-mpg requirement, but you might not know the really good news embedded in that story. As a result of those standards alone, total carbon emissions from the United States will decline by another 10 percent. You read that right: One rule will deliver a 10 percent cut in emissions.
Getting rid of dirty fuels is important, but so is replacing those fuels with clean energy. The U.S. is now the world’s number-one wind power, with more than 60,000 MW of capacity. That’s enough to power nearly 15 million homes. Last year, rooftop solar in the U.S. grew by 76 percent as we added more solar to the grid than we did during all the years prior to 2010. And guess what? The cost of solar PV panels is still falling.
Are renewables anywhere near their potential? Not even close. As we accept that the dirty-fuel emperor wears no clothes, we come closer to realizing the full potential of clean, renewable energy. Renewables accounted for more than half of the U.S. generating capacity we added in 2012; in March 2013 100 percent of the power added to the grid came from solar energy.
No question: We face formidable challenges. But the successes we’ve already seen are solid evidence that we are not be as suicidal a species as the fatalists imagine. As Gandhi liked to say, the difference between what we’re doing and what we’re capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems. Let’s work together to close the gap.