At the beginning of each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes an annual report that summarizes the state of the earth’s climate vs the previous year. In their most recent analysis, NOAA reports that 2014 was the warmest year on record by 0.07°F. To most New Yorkers who survived the Polar Vortexes of last year, an increase of 0.07°F doesn’t even begin to make a dent in what we would consider to be “warming” and yet scientists are warning us that this warming trend will have serious social, political, and economic consequences.
The average annual global temperature is a combination of land and ocean surface temperatures that are recorded by weather stations around the world. Land temperatures for 2014 were actually only the 4th highest value ever recorded. However, 2014 was a record breaking year for oceanic temperatures, including three months of new monthly high sea surface temperature records being set in June, August and September.
It’s not surprising that as humans continue to ramp up the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, new global temperature highs are being recorded. However, what is surprising is that 2014 was the first time in the last 25 years that the global temperature record was broken without El Niño conditions being present. This then begs the question, as the concentration of GHGs remains above 400 ppm, what’s going to happen when El Niño conditions return? Many scientists believe that the next El Niño year will bring even higher record breaking temperatures.
Once we begin to understand what’s happening to our planet, the question then becomes why do we care? In New York City, it’s sometimes easy to remove ourselves from becoming part of the solution to climate change because the consequences are not always causing noticeable stress in our region. However, while we are fortunate to live in an area that has remained relatively sheltered from climate change compared to other places around the world, we are still not immune.
For example, as the earth’s temperature continues to rise, farmers are experiencing droughts, flooding and temperature variations that kill crops and decrease food production. The decreased supply of crops is driving up the price of food, which is then passed along to the consumer through higher food prices at the supermarket. This issue is also accelerated by increased energy prices and exponential population growth, which is driving up the demand for crops and increasing food prices even further.
As issues like higher food prices slowly begin to infiltrate places like New York City, we can also expect to see more devastating consequences of climate change that are more difficult to absorb. In October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the east coast, killing 149 people and costing the area billions of dollars in property damage and lost business. A storm of this magnitude statistically only comes around once every 100 years. However, in 2005 the south was hit by Hurricane Katrina and in 2011 the northern coast was hit by Hurricane Irene, two other 100 year storms. The probability of three 100 year storms randomly occurring over the course of eight years seems much less likely than the alternative conclusion that human behavior is increasing storm frequency and intensity.
As we look back at the temperature records over the past 135 years and reflect on the correlation between global warming and the social and economic impacts of a warmer planet, it is clear that we must act now by living more sustainably. Scientists have warned us about the consequences of global warming, and it is now up to us to find and implement a solution.