This year will likely be the hottest ever measured, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Data through October show that 2014 was on pace to be hotter than 2010, which was hotter than 2005, which was hotter than 1998, which was hotter than 1997, which was hotter than 1995, which was hotter than 1990, which was hotter than 1988, which... well, you get the idea. The last record cold year on a global scale was in 1909—more than 100 years ago. Don't expect another one for at least another few centuries or so.
"The provisional information for 2014 means that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century," WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a statement this month. "There is no standstill in global warming."
So what happened to the planet this year? Here are a few highlights:
EXTREME WEATHER IS THE NEW NORMAL
This year, drought caused substantial changes in the Colorado River system, in California's Central Valley, in Brazil, in Central America, in Australia, and in China. California's drought is now estimated to be the state's worst in at least 1,200 years. In Sao Paulo, where a mixture of Amazon deforestation, lack of rain, and mismanagement have produced the worst hydrological crisis in 80 years, they're now making plans to extract water from mud. Severe flooding hit the United Kingdom, which recorded its wettest January on record. The Met Office linked the floods to abnormal behavior of the jet stream. February saw the warmest ever Winter Olympics being held in Sochi, Russia.
But in much of the United States, it's been the freezing cold that's made headlines recently. The term polar vortex was trotted out to describe some of the most bitterly frigid temperatures ever recorded in the Midwest. It's counterintuitive that global warming should contribute to extreme cold snaps of this magnitude—ice persisted on Lake Superior until June—but that's just the world we live in: It's almost always too hot, unless it is much, much too cold.
Recent studies have tied lingering "blocking patterns" (where hot or wet weather hovers over an area for weeks) and extreme events to the changing nature of the jet stream—an emerging theory that's been hotly debated. But whatever the cause for all this, it's clear that the atmosphere has a profoundly different chemical composition than it did just 100 years ago. That we should see things we can't immediately explain shouldn't be that shocking.
It was a year full of holy shit moments—for example, the world's oceans have never been warmer.
THE OCEANS ARE HEATING UP AT AN ALARMING RATE
Longer-range climate problems were also in the news this year. There's more Antarctic sea ice than ever—a phenomenon scientists attribute at least partially to changes in the southern hemisphere jet stream—and there were bold new warnings about the melting rate of Antarctic glaciers, which is a driving force for global sea level rise. Climate journalist Chris Mooney called the Antarctic news a "holy shit moment for global warming."
It was a year full of holy shit moments—for example, the world's oceans have never been warmer, and that's without the boost of an official El Niño, though the tropical Pacific has flirted with one almost all year. Odds are good that El Niño will finally arrive in 2015, potentially propelling next year to be even warmer than this one.
That the ocean is now capable of setting heat records without an El Niño is a grim new development, but probably not so surprising considering greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations also hit new record highs in 2014. April was the first month in at least 800,000 years in which there was more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The rate of increase is also increasing: 2014 gave us the highest emissions in human history, due mostly to China's continued growth and the West's continued high per-capita fossil fuel use.
BUT PEOPLE ARE FINALLY PAYING ATTENTION TO ALL THIS... MAYBE
You've probably heard variations of these statistics before. Scientists have been telling us about climate change for a long time. But this year, it was increasingly clear that it's now up to us to actually listen. If 2013 was the year that scientists had their final word—human-induced global warming is "unequivocal," according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—then 2014 was the year that reality finally hit home for leaders and citizens around the world. I hope.
In September, poet, mother, and Marshall Islander Kathy Jetnil-Kijner made a passionate appeal in front of world leaders gathered at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City, just hours after more than 300,000 people marched nearby in the largest climate rally in world history. Her poem, according to many who were in the room, moved some heads of state to tears.
WE HAVE HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Undergirding all this is, I believe, a hint of a turning point.
Headlining efforts to address global warming this year was a surprise deal between the US and China in November that was widely regarded as a "watershed moment for climate politics." For the first time China announced that it would look to hit a carbon emission "peak" in 2030—a precedent that seems to have put renewed life into the previously stagnant global climate negotiations. Now there are signs that India may also be considering a similar announcement. We can debate whether or not these are ambitious enough goals to keep the world beneath the agreed-upon 2°C warming target (they're almost certainly not) but there's at least now a glimmer of a chance that the global economy might transform and kick the carbon habit. And despite their "I'm not a scientist" meme, even Republicans may be coming around to the idea that meaningful action on climate change is necessary.
The comfortable myths we've been telling ourselves—that we can reverse global warming without changing our lifestyles, or that some fantastical genius will invent a way to produce clean energy cheaply and efficiently—will have to slip away first. In their place, we'll have to build a vision of a world where people will want to live that's compatible with a zero-carbon economy. What that would look like isn't exactly clear yet, but it's clear that 2015 is starting with a twinge more optimism than in the past.
It seems negotiators have finally learned their lessons from the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen—to have an ambitious deal, you first have to have a deal at all.
OF COURSE, EVERYTHING IS STILL UP IN THE AIR
For close climate watchers, 2015 represents a line in the sand and the final run-up to a big meeting in Paris that should culminate in a first-ever global accord on climate change, an agreement that will bridge the longstanding divide between developed countries and developing countries—the polluters and the places that stand to be hit the hardest in a warmer and wilder world. As with most matters of geopolitics, America exerts an outsize influence. Any global plan on climate change can't be legally binding, the thinking goes, because there's no chance the US Congress would approve it. It seems negotiators have finally learned their lessons from the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen—to have an ambitious deal, you first have to have a deal at all.
Negotiations could always fall apart, and in that case this article will sound pathetically naïve in hindsight. As we know by now, nothing is certain when it comes to climate change politics—the only thing we can say for sure is that the world is getting warmer, fast.
Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist whose writing on weather and climate has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Quartz, the Daily Beast, Wired, and Slate.