News that 2015 was the hottest year since global measurements beganâ--âbreaking the previous record, set just the year beforeâ--âmust have come as something of a shock to Republican leaders in Congress. For years they've tried to justify their refusal to take action against climate change by claiming they don't know whether it's happening.
"I'm not a scientist," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shrugged in 2014, when the Cincinnati Enquirer asked whether he agreed with the 97 percent of climate scientists who say fossil fuels are driving climate chaos.
"I don't know the answer to that question," Paul Ryan, now the Speaker of the House, replied to a 2014 debate question about whether human activity is driving climate change. "I don't think science does, either."
And when Ryan's predecessor, former House Speaker John Boehner, was asked at a 2014 press conference whether he would support action to fight climate change, the Ohio Republican responded, "Listen, I'm not qualified to debate the science over climate change."
Well, Gavin Schmidt is a scientist. He's the top climate scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and he's eminently qualified to explain why we are seeing rising seas, melting glaciers, widening deserts, more frequent heat waves, raging storms, disappearing Arctic sea ice, and other consequences of climate change. "What we are going to see are more and clearer impacts as we warm," said Schmidt. "It's not really an 'if.' This trend will continue."
Last week, Schmidt's team at NASA confirmed, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that 2015 was the hottest yearâ--âby farâ--âsince global recordkeeping began 136 years ago. Of the 16 hottest years on record, 15 have occurred since 2001. Since 1970, the earth has been warming by about 0.15 degrees Centigrade per decade.
El NiÃ±oâ--âthe periodic phenomenon that affects ocean currents, water temperatures, and prevailing winds in the Pacificâ--âcontributed to warmer temperatures across much of North America during the last three months of 2015. The warming, though, was worldwide and began well before El NiÃ±o had any impact. "Even without El NiÃ±o, this would have been the warmest year on record," Schmidt told reporters on a conference call. "We're really looking at a long-term trend."
As director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Schmidt oversees the program to monitor temperatures and other vital signs of the planet from air, land, and space with a fleet of satellites and airborne and ground-based imaging, sensing, and detection systems. "We're physical scientists," he said. "It's really up to society and policy makers to decide what to do with that information." Without issuing specific policy prescriptions, Schmidt said there's no doubt among scientists about the fix: sharp reductions in the carbon pollution that comes from burning coal, gas, and oil.
The urgency is just as clear.
Last year, for the first time, the average global temperature rose to a full 1 degree Centigrade higher than the late-19th-century baseline. Climate scientists warn that we must stay below a 2-degree rise above that marker to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
"Those are patterns that require emissions to be cut, pretty much starting now, at historically unprecedented rates," Schmidt explained. "Sustained reductions in emissions to about an 80 percent cut within the next 30 years would probably do it, in my opinion."
Our work is cut out for us, and the mandate is clear. We need to accelerate the shift away from the fossil fuels that are driving climate change and embrace cleaner, smarter ways to power our future without making large parts of the planet uninhabitable.
That's exactly what the world community agreed on last month in Paris, when the United States, China, and 185 other countries put plans on the table to phase down the worldwide use of fossil fuels.
That's why it's so important for the states to implement President Obama's Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, which account for 40 percent of the U.S. carbon footprint.
And that's why the clean energy revolution is vital to our children's future, driving job growth and productivity through efficiency gains that help us do more with less waste, getting more clean power from the wind and sun, and building modern transportation options that improve our lives.
Republican leaders in Congress are doing everything they can to block the progress we need in our fight against climate change. Meanwhile, they've offered no plan of their own to protect future generations against the central environmental challenge of our time.
But they and the fossil fuel empires that support them are becoming increasingly isolated. Their refusal to face facts has put them out of touch with the real harm this global scourge is doing to people at home and abroad. They're way out of step with the vast potential for clean energy to create jobs and expand opportunity. And now they're at odds with nearly every nation in the world. You don't have to be a scientist to understand that.