The contigous United States had an average annual temperature of 55.3°F which was 3.2°F above the 20th century average. The 2012 annual temperature was 1.0°F warmer than the previous record warm year of 1998. Read a quick summary by the World Resources Institute: By the Numbers: The Hottest Year on Record
"In 117 years of data the record low temperatures to 1998's previous record high average, all sit within a four degree Fahrenheit band, 2012 is 1 degree Fahrenheit above that band," said Jake Crouch, climate scientist, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).
The extent of heat records broken in 2012 is part of a disturbing global trend. Australia is currently experiencing an extreme heatwave with Australia's Bureau of Meteorology saying that many temperature records exceeded and requiring an extra two colours added to the top end of the temperature scale on their weather maps.
Shaye Wolf, climate science director with the Center for Biological Diversity made a brief statement in reaction to the NOAA announcement calling for President Obama to use his powers through the Clean Air Act to fight greenhouse gas emissions.
"This disturbing news puts the heat on President Obama to take immediate action against carbon pollution," said Dr. Wolf. "The blazing temperatures that scorched America in 2012 are a bitter taste of the climate chaos ahead. Science tells us that our rapidly warming planet will endure more heat waves, droughts and extreme weather. The president needs to start making full use of the Clean Air Act to fight greenhouse gas emissions, before it's too late."
NOAA also reported that the U.S. Climate Extremes Index indicated that 2012 was the second most extreme year on record for the nation. The index, which evaluates extremes in temperature and precipitation, as well as land-falling tropical cyclones, was nearly twice the average value and second only to 1998. The US experienced 11 extreme events, including seven severe weather/tornado events, two tropical storm/hurricane events, and the year long drought and associated wildfires. 349 deaths can be directly attributed to these extreme weather events with 131 people deaths due to Sandy and another 123 deaths due to summer heatwave and drought. Once mortality statistics are compiled, further deaths due to heat stress are likely to boost this total. Watch the Extreme Events of 2012 video on Climate.gov
The NOAA report also detailed that precipitation was 2.57 inches below the 20th century average. Precipitation totals in 2012 ranked as the 15th driest year on record.
The year featured the fourth warmest winter (December 2011-February 2012), with warmer-than-average conditions across a large portion of the country. Spring (March-May) was particularly warm setting new records over much of the contigous US. The average temperature for the season was 56.1°F, 5.2°F above the 20th century average, and the warmest spring on record, by 2.0°F. The previous record warm spring occurred in 1910.
The summer heat brought drought to large swathes of the country. According to the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), at least 61.8 percent of the country was subjected to moderate drought. Wyoming and Nebraska had their driest summer on record. Persistent drought may push the south-west into a multi-decadal megadrought.
NOAA reports that hot and dry conditions caused wildfires to burn 7.0 million acres over summer months - the second highest total after 2005 in the 13-year record. Scientific studies show that increasing temperatures and the frequency of drought, we are seeing Changes in extent and intensity of wildfire linked to Climate change. NASA Earth Observatory reported in September 2012 that wildfire frequency and intensity continues to increase. The NASA article states:
"The size and frequency of wildfires has increased significantly in the western United States over the past few decades due largely to climate change and changing forestry practices. Climate change has decreased winter snow cover, hastened the arrival of spring, and intensified heat waves across much of the West--all factors that exacerbate wildfires. In addition, decades of aggressive fire suppression have left denser forests and abundant fuel on the ground, which makes fires more difficult to control."
Despite the year being the hottest on record for the United States with severe drought and Hurricane Sandy, record lowest summer arctic sea ice extent, the major news networks have continued to ignore talking about climate change according to Media Matters, and when they do provide coverage, are much more likely to interview Republican politicians than Democrats and give space to climate denial than considered comments from climate scientists. See another account from the Daily Climate on Climate coverage, dominated by weird weather, falls further in 2012.
Evidence for Action is clear and mounting
A draft of the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA) was released for public review on January 11, with the final report due to be delivered to President Obama in 2014. Dr Andrew Steer, President of the World Resources Institute said:
"The evidence is clear and mounting. The United States sits at the center of the climate crisis. Record heat is devastating crops, rivers are drying up, and storms are bearing down on our cities. Climate change is taking its toll on people and their economies, and will only become more intense without a strong and rapid response here in the United States and around the globe. It's not too late to take action, but given lags in policy and geophysical processes, the window is closing.
"In his second term, President Obama has a chance to ensure his legacy as a leader on climate change. Now is the time for the Administration to move forward with new standards on power plants and other actions to put America on course to a low-carbon future."
On election night when President made his victory speech he said:
"We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,"
He has since affirmed that action on climate change will be one of the top three priorities for his second term. Now he needs to take action. Getting legislation through Congress will be extremely difficult given it's toxic power plays from politicians in climate denial and funded and supported by the fossil fuel companies.
President Obama has the support of 70 environmental organisations to take action on climate change. In a letter dated 7 January 2013 (PDF), these organisations urged the President to take three specific actions in combating climate change as a high priority in his second term:
- 1. "Elevate the issue of climate disruption and climate solutions in the public discourse;"
- 2. Use executive authority with the Clean Air Act to "cut carbon pollution from America's aging power plant fleet at least 25 percent by 2020 while boosting energy efficiency and shifting to clean energy sources. Power plants are our largest source of carbon pollution and you have the authority and responsibility to clean them up under the Clean Air Act. This will create tens of thousands of clean energy jobs, meet the pollution targets you set for the country, and restore U.S. international leadership."
- 3. Reject dirty fuels such as the Canadian tar sands "when climate science tells us that 80 percent of existing fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground." including refusing permits for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline which "is not in our national interest because it would unlock vast amounts of additional carbon that we can't afford to burn, extend our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels, endanger health and safety, and put critical water resources at risk."
While transitioning away from fossil fuels will result in job losses in mining and coal power generation, many more clean energy jobs will be created in the renewables sector: in building the solar thermal power stations, the wind farms, installing small scale solar PV systems, and in research and energy innovation. The letter from the environment organisations concludes:
"Cutting carbon pollution at home and rejecting dirty fuels will establish America's leadership and credibility, enabling you to create clean energy jobs in the United States while forging an effective international coalition to cut global carbon pollution. We urge you to elevate climate solutions to the top tier of your domestic agenda and America's bilateral and global diplomatic priorities."
But it is not only environmental organisations urging the President to act. Small Business Majority, an advocacy organistion for small businesses in the US also wrote (PDF) to President Obama on January 10 urging tighter emission standards under the Clean Air Act to promote more innovation and investment in low carbon technologies and clean energy jobs. John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of Small Business Majority said in the letter:
"Small business owners support this type of action: 76% of those we polled favour the Environmental Protection Agency limiting carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. Therefore, we urge your administration to finalize the proposed Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants as soon as possible and, as required by the Clean Air Act, propose and finalize a carbon reduction program for existing power plants. This standard is an important step toward spurring innovation, job creation and investment in low and no-carbon technologies, as well as new energy infrastructure and energy efficiency."
Without action by the USA to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, major developing countries like China and India, and many developed countries as well, are unlikely to reduce their carbon intensity and make major reductions in carbon emissions. It is the United States inaction that is a primary factor in holding up international negotiations on taking global action to reduce emissions.
The world waits for the United States, and President Obama, to take the action to cut carbon emissions and transition to a clean energy economy. Inaction will condemn the entire planet to a much hotter world where frequent extreme weather disasters will severely cripple even the greatest economies.
The Center for Biological Diversity is running a campaign for the defence of The Clean Air Act to be used to regulate carbon pollution, and a Clean Air cities campaign. But I'm sure there are many other active creative ways to take action directly or through lobbying or protesting.
- NOAA National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate: National Overview for Annual 2012, published online December 2012, retrieved on January 14, 2013
- NASA Earth Observatory, September 2012 - American west continues to burn
- NOAA news, December 20, 2012 - Preliminary Info on 2012 U.S. Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather/Climate Events
- Protect Our Waters, 7 January 2013 - POW joins 70 environmental groups to send letter to Pres. Obama
- Small Business Majority, 10 January 2013 - Letter to President Obama (PDF)
- Lead image from Climatewatch magazine, climate.gov, 8 January, 2013 - By a wide margin, 2012 was the United States' warmest year on record