Hottest year ever and Arctic meltdown put the world on the brink of catastrophe

The Trump presidency may kill our last chance to avoid the worst.

NASA’s 2016 land and ocean temperature index (LOTI) vs. 1951–1980 average..
NASA’s 2016 land and ocean temperature index (LOTI) vs. 1951–1980 average..

NASA and NOAA reported Wednesday that 2016 beat the record for hottest year ever — a record set only in 2015, which itself had crushed the record set in 2014.

“The fact that we’re punching at the ceiling every year now, that is the real indicator that we’re undergoing big changes,” said Deke Arndt, NOAA’s chief of global climate monitoring.

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Even the usually staid New York Times warned of significant risks. “Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization,” the paper says.

A staggering number of countries set their all-time record this past year, according to a reanalysis of world temperature data released this week by the Koch-backed Berkeley Earth.

Especially worrisome is that carbon pollution has made the North Pole so warm that once-in-1,000-year heatwaves are becoming commonplace.

Here’s a polar view of the warming from Berkeley Earth lead scientist Robert Rohde, showing that parts of the Arctic averaged as much as 12°C (21.6°F)— warmer than normal last year.

Warming (compared to 1951–1980 average). CREDIT: Berkeley Earth
Warming (compared to 1951–1980 average). CREDIT: Berkeley Earth

It bears repeating that what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. As Arctic warming speeds up sea ice loss, it causes more extreme weather in North America, while accelerating the melting of both the Greenland ice sheet (which speeds up sea level rise) and permafrost (which releases CO2 and methane that speed up warming).

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Only dramatic cuts in CO2 can avoid the Dust-Bowlification of America’s breadbasket and the inundation of our major coastal cities.

Yet while human-caused warming is now as undeniable as the health dangers from smoking, and although the entire world desperately banded together in one last ditch effort to avoid catastrophe in 2015, we are hours away from the inauguration of the most science-denying administration in U.S. history, one dedicated to stopping U.S. and global action.

In the Trump era, activism should be the sixth stage of grief.