Climate Compass Blog

Answers to 3 key questions about the hottest year on record

Last year was the warmest globally in the 135 years since records have been kept. That was confirmed today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

What’s significant about one year’s temperature?

What does one record-breaking year say about climate change? Alone, very little, but 2014’s heat did not happen in isolation. It was part of a longer streak of warm years. The last 38 years have been warmer than the 20th century average. All of the top 10 warmest years have occurred since 1998. Taken together, these warm years demonstrate that the Earth’s climate has changed and continues to change. The “warm streak” also provides a strong argument against those who claim global warming somehow stopped in the last 15-20 years. Although it is true that the rate of warming since 1998 was slower than in prior decades, the longer-term picture is unequivocal. The planet is still warming up. And as we’ve discussed previously, the ups and downs that occur over a few years or even a decade should not be used to undermine (or unnecessarily embellish) the reality of the broad warming trend.

Another interesting aspect of 2014 is that the high-temperature mark was broken without much help from El Niño. El Niño events occur when a large area of the tropical Pacific Ocean maintains above-average temperatures for many consecutive months. So, when we have an El Niño, the planet has a good chance of being warm as a whole. El Niños helped make 1998, 2005, and 2010 some of the warmest years in the temperature record. However, in 2014, ocean conditions fell somewhere between neutral and a bona fide El Niño (see NOAA’s recent blog on the state of El Niño).

Global average annual temperatures since 1880, from NOAA and The dark red columns represent the 10 warmest years in the record. 2014 is the warmest year in the record.

How can this be? I’m shivering as I read this!

If you live in the eastern half of the United States, you may find the warmth of 2014 a little surprising. Most of 2014 was not remarkably warm in this part of the world. In some states in the Midwest, 2014 was actually one of the top 10 coldest years on record.

This region, however, was not representative of the rest of the world. In fact, the eastern United States was one of the few places on the planet where 2014 registered as a below-average year (or even a near-average year; see map).

Most of the world experienced above-average temperature (denoted by the red shading). The eastern United States was one of the few locations exhibiting below-average temperature (shown in blue). SOURCE: NOAA

Just how do we take the Earth’s temperature?

Scientists draw on observations from weather stations, ships, buoys, and satellites to weave together a coherent picture of Earth’s temperature. Although temperature estimates from before the satellite era may be subject to greater uncertainty than our current temperature estimates, there is a lot of agreement among independent scientific groups that maintain global temperature sets. For example, the estimates and trends in the temperature records compiled by NOAA, NASA, the United Kingdom’s Met Office, and Japanese Meteorological Agency are nearly identical.

Annual temperature estimates from different research groups are very similar, and the trends are nearly identical. SOURCE: NASA

The record-hot year is one indication of our warming planet, but other evidence is all around us: rapidly melting ice sheets and glaciers, changes in growing seasons, and plant and animal species moving to higher altitudes and latitudes. It all paints a clear picture of a changing climate, and underscores the urgent need for stronger efforts to curb carbon emissions.


Resolve to make an impact at work in 2015

If your New Year’s resolution is to make a difference, why not start at work?

A majority of us say we’d be more satisfied if we had a job where we could make a social or environmental impact on the world. A recent study shows Millennials especially see businesses as potential partners in helping them make the world a better place.

No matter your title or department, or if it’s just you working in your home office, you can help make your workplace a little greener and reduce the emissions that are contributing to climate change.

Here are 8 steps to consider giving a try:

Photo by Ellie Ramm

Cafeteria composting and recycling are great ways to cut food waste at work. 

1. Find out if there are sustainable activities already happening at work. Talk to co-workers, HR folks, or a sustainability manager to see if there are any existing initiatives you can join.

2. Take a second look at in-person meetings. Travel is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions for companies of all sizes. Replacing a meeting with phone or video conferencing also can save time and money and increase productivity. If travel is a must, look for direct flights. Other ideas: buy carbon offsets, or ask for a hybrid rental car.

3. Ask to telework instead of going into the office. Not driving just once a week saves fuel, reducing emissions. (The National Institutes of Health offers a telework calculator to estimate savings.)  Other ways to lessen the impact of your commute: rideshare or bike to work.

4. Ask your office to purchase reusable coffee mugs, glasses, plates, and silverware for the office kitchen or bring in your own instead of using disposable items.

5. Save money and reduce emissions by replacing bottled water with a tap filter, such as Pur or Brita. (Brita says one filter replaces 300 plastic bottles, saving $45 a month). If your office uses Keurig K-Cup packs, consider joining the Grounds to Grow On program that responsibly recycles the packs. Both steps keep plastic from piling up at the landfill.

6. Activate the power management features on your computer and monitor, unplug laptop power cords when not in use, and turn off equipment and lights at the end of the day.To maximize power savings, set computers to enter standby mode after 15 to 20 minutes of inactivity. Power management features could save you $50 per computer annually. Also, be sure to properly dispose of electronics like computers once they are no longer useful.

7. Find out if your company has done a waste assessment. If not, see if they would be willing. An assessment helps identify ways to reduce wastes and improve waste management, including reuse, material exchanges, recycling, and composting. WasteWise, run by the Environmental Protection Agency, has 1,700 partners that report huge savings -- more than 120 million tons of waste reduced.

8. Join a Green Team at work – or start one – to look at ways to reduce environmental impacts, improve sustainability, communicate best practices, and coordinate company education or volunteer programs. You could even challenge your green team members to pledge to take simple energy- and money-saving steps that could save each of you $400 a year and prevent the release annually of more than 4,800 pounds of carbon dioxide.

After all your hard work, don’t forget to share your accomplishments! See if your sustainability efforts can be included in a newsletter or posted on your company intranet. Your experience might spark a wakeup call for others looking to make a little more of an impact at work, too.


Low gas prices tempt consumers to buy gas guzzlers, but they should resist

In the past six months, the price of gasoline in the United States has declined precipitously - from its June peak of $3.63 per gallon to less than $2 in some parts of the country now.

The effect this sharp price decline will ultimately have on greenhouse gas emissions is not yet known, but a reasonable estimate is that emissions will rise as less efficient cars and trucks become popular for the first time in years. Luckily for the climate, stronger federal fuel economy standards will mean that emissions from the transportation sector won’t rise nearly as much as they would have.

Using travel data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), monthly vehicle sales data, and fuel economy calculations by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoetle of the University of Michigan, we calculate that vehicles purchased in last five months will emit 7.8 million more metric tons of greenhouse gases than if car-buying habits before the gas price drop had continued. An average car emits about 43 metric tons of greenhouse gases over its useful life, so the additional emissions are about the same as putting 180,000 new cars and light trucks on the road.

The sudden plunge in gas prices can make it tempting to forget the lessons of the past.

Public policy, private investment needed to keep EV market growing in 2015

Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) were up 25 percent last year, and automakers are looking to boost sales further in 2015 with new and updated models. Clearly, EVs have moved beyond their infancy. But continued growth in the EV market will require smart public and private strategies to expand charging infrastructure so motorists don’t have to worry about running out of juice.

Advancing the deployment of low-carbon vehicle technology, like EVs, is essential if we’re going to achieve meaningful emissions reductions from the transportation sector, which is responsible for 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases. Globally, the problem is more acute as the number of light-duty vehicles on the road is expected to double to more than 2 billion by 2050.

Automakers will begin introducing their second generation EVs beginning this month with the 2016 Chevy Volt. While sales will likely jump because of the incremental improvements from the first generation Volt, more time is likely needed for batteries to improve and charging infrastructure to be deployed.

Our work for the Washington State Legislature shows that new business models to foster private investment in charging infrastructure will be vital, but public sector policies and incentives will still be needed in the near term to keep the market growing.

Climate progress in 2014 sets the stage for 2015 action

Progress on a multifaceted global challenge like climate change doesn’t happen in one flash of bright light. This can lead to the impression that little is being accomplished, especially when stories highlight areas of disagreement.

Nothing can be further from the truth. In reality, progress is more like the brightening sky before dawn. We saw positive steps in 2014, and they’ll help lay the groundwork for significant climate action in 2015 in the United States and around the world.

In the U.S., we will see the EPA Clean Power Plan finalized and states taking up the challenge to develop innovative policies to reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Allowing governors to do what they do best, innovating at the state level, will be a key achievement of 2015.

Internationally, more countries than ever before will be putting forward new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions ahead of talks in December in Paris to hammer out a climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

In the New Year, we will be building on solid progress made in 2014 by governments, businesses, and individuals. Here are 10 examples: