Marked by record wildfires from California to Siberia, searing heat waves and relentless hurricanes, 2020 was the hottest year ever recorded, NASA scientists reported Thursday.
The Earth’s average global surface temperature has risen 2.16 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, largely due to climate change from the burning of fossil fuels, according NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Perhaps most noteworthy: The seven hottest years since 1880 when modern temperature records began all have occurred since 2014, according to NASA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
“Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, based in New York. “With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”
NASA researchers noted that 2020 barely edged out 2016 for the record by less than one-hundredth of a degree, so the two years are essentially tied. A separate analysis released Thursday by NOAA using slightly different methods found that 2020 was .04 degrees Fahrenheit behind 2016.
But unlike in 2016, when strong El Niño conditions were present, which warmed waters in the Pacific Ocean, 2020 did not have a strong El Niño, but rather La Niña conditions which tend to cool the ocean.
“We’re conducting an uncontrolled experiment in the habitability of our planet,” said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “That’s dangerous. We shouldn’t take chances with that, just like you wouldn’t drive 150 mph on the highway. This is about our and our children’s ability to live and prosper. It’s not responsible. We need to stop.”
Burning fossil fuels like gasoline, diesel and coal releases carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere, similar to a greenhouse. The hotter, drier conditions don’t by themselves cause wildfires, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes, scientists say. But they make them worse.
NOAA reported Thursday that 2020 was also Earth’s 44th consecutive year with global land and ocean temperatures above the 20th-century average, leading to record loss of Arctic Sea ice and a record number of tropical cyclones, which are strengthened by warmer water.
“This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature,” said Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, in a statement.
But there is some hope. California has done more to combat climate change than any other state.
A landmark goal set by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 to reduce California’s carbon emissions below 1990 levels by 2020 was accomplished four years early. And the state’s plan to generate 33% of its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable energy by 2020 was met two years early. Improving technology has dramatically brought down the price of solar and wind energy.
Because of its laws encouraging electric vehicles, renewable energy and other clean technologies, emissions of carbon dioxide peaked in California in 2004 and have fallen by 14% despite the state adding more than 3 million people since then. Electric cars have come down in price and become more widespread.
But new targets will be harder to reach.
In 2017, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law requiring California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Other states and countries are watching to see if that’s possible.
To meet the target, California will have to nearly double its current rate of emissions reductions — from about 7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year over the past decade to 13 million metric tons a year — in the decade ahead.
Brown also signed a law requiring 100% of the state’s electricity to be carbon-free by 2045.
And last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a historic order banning gasoline engines in any new cars sold in California starting in 2035. At least a dozen countries around the world already have similar laws imposing a ban on new gasoline cars by 2030, including England, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Israel and India. Canada and France have announced a phase-out of internal combustion engines by 2040.
President-elect Joe Biden is expected to make major changes in U.S. climate policy when he takes office. President Donald Trump, whose term expires Wednesday, called climate change a hoax, withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, and appointed former coal and oil industry lobbyists to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior and other agencies.
Biden has said he will quickly the Paris agreement, a voluntary commitment in which the United States pledged to cut greenhouse emissions by at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025.
Wara said despite slim Democratic majorities in Congress, Biden can make progress by working with Republicans to pass a major infrastructure bill that would include funding to expand renewable energy. In many red states, such as Texas and across the Great Plains, wind energy is a fast-growing business, and solar has been expanding. Biden also can push for programs to expand gas mileage standards for vehicles and build more charging stations nationwide, he said.
“I’m optimistic, but our country is divided,” Wara said. “There are still lots of people who don’t think this is a priority. The challenge, as with so many other issues, is making progress despite the division.”