2002 Heading for No. 2 Spot in Climate Records

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 11, 2002 (ENS) - Temperature data for the first 11 months of the year show that the average global temperature is on the rise. The new data indicates that 2002 will go down in the recordbooks as the second warmest year to date, exceeded only by 1998, since recordkeeping of global temperatures began in 1867.

Temperatures for the first 11 months of 2002 averaged 14.65 degrees Celsius (58.37 degrees Fahrenheit), according to data from National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

This average is down slightly from 1998's record high of 14.69 degrees Celsius (58.44 degrees Fahrenheit), but it rises above the average temperature for the period from 1951 to 1980 - 14 degrees Celsius (57.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

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Earth Policy Institute president Lester Brown (Photo courtesy EPI)
This latest data is further evidence that the trend of rising temperature is gaining momentum and could have far reaching consequences for the planet and its inhabitants, according to Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, DC think tank.

"The 15 warmest years since record keeping began have come since 1980 and the three warmest years have come in the last five years," Brown said at a press briefing held today in Washington.

Each month since November 2001 has been at least half a degree Celsius warmer than average and the January 2002 temperature was the highest on record for January. March 2002 was also the highest on record, and in seven of the eight following months, the temperature was either the second or third highest on record.

Skeptics of the human cause of climate change point to natural climate variability as a likely cause of temperature increase, but the current rise in temperature tracks increased levels of carbon dioxide emissions over the past 50 years.

From 1950 to 2001, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have risen from 311.26 parts per million to 370.89 parts per million.

The average temperature over that same time rose from 13.83 degrees Celsius (56.89 degrees Fahrenheit) to 14.53 degrees Celsius (58.15 degrees Fahrenheit).

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Glacier melting in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park (Photo courtesy Konrad Lawson)
If atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise as projected, the Earth's average temperature will rise by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius during this century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body composed of some 1,500 climate scientists from around the world.

IPCC studies have found human activities are becoming the dominant influence on climate change.

Advocates of immediate action to combat global warming scored a victory yesterday when the Canadian and New Zealand governments voted to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

The protocol under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change sets reduction targets for a basket of six greenhouse gases linked to global warming, the most abundant being carbon dioxide.

The Kyoto Protocol becomes law when a minimum of 55 countries covering at least 55 percent of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions have ratified. Canada's vote brings the total to 98 countries, covering 40.7 percent of greenhouse emissions.

Even with Canada and New Zealand, the Kyoto Protocol will not enter into force until Russia ratifies it, and there is concern that the Russian government might renege on its pledge to sign onto the accord in 2003.

Some environmentalists believe the refusal of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol has undermined the potential success of the treaty.

The United States is responsible for some 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration's climate change policy calls for further study to reduce scientific uncertainty before mandating action.

While President George W. Bush views the emissions limits under the Kyoto Protocol as too demanding on the U.S. economy, Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute, believes the Kyoto Protocol "will soon be seen as completely inadequate."

The consequences of rising temperature, Brown warns, will manifest in further heat waves, falling agricultural production and melting ice. Recent events including the mounting temperature offer evidence of these consequences, he maintains.

In 2002, more ice melted from the surface of Greenland than any other year on record. At the same time, the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrank to two million square miles, compared to an average of 2.4 million square miles during the preceding 23 years.

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Melting ice on Alaska's Beaufort Sea (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Melting ice in the sea does not affect sea level, but it does cause warming. When incoming sunlight hits snow and ice, some 80 percent of the light is reflected and the rest is converted to heat. The ratio is flipped when sunlight hits water, with 80 percent of the light converted to heat.

Ice in mountain ranges across the world is also melting at an increasing rate, with possible negative ramifications for water flows in many major river systems. Mt. Kiliminjaro, for example, has lost 80 percent of its snow ice cover since 1900.

A record heat wave hit India in May, with temperatures soaring to 45.6 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit). More than 1,000 people living in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh died from the heat, Brown reminded the journalists today, an indication of how vulnerable many people in the developing world are to extreme heat waves.

Rising temperatures are likely to negatively affect agricultural production, as crop yields fall when temperatures climb, said Brown. Higher summer temperatures in the northern hemisphere, as well as lower rainfall, caused the 2002 world grain harvest to fall to 1,813 million tons, some 80 tons below world consumption.

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Goats attempt to graze the arid Chaletenango Department in northern El Salvador. (Photo by L. Dematteis courtesy FAO)
"The scientific rule of thumb is that a degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum reduces grain yields by 10 percent," Brown said.

The impact of global warming on agricultural production might be the force that finally pushes the world to combat climate change, Brown said.

It is well documented that the harmful impacts of climate change are likely to be felt most in the developing world, but Brown argues that the United States and other developed countries will feel an economic effect as those countries face food shortages. Crops will fail due to drought, flood, extreme storms and sea level rise linked with global warming, Brown warned.

Brown, who founded the Worldwatch Institute in 1974 as a research institute to address global environmental issues, started his career as a farmer, growing tomatoes in southern New Jersey with his younger brother during high school and college.

Shortly after earning a degree in agricultural science from Rutgers University in 1955, he spent six months living in rural India, and went on to earn a Master of Public Administration from Harvard.

In 1984, with Worldwatch, Brown launched the State of the World reports. These annual assessments, translated into some 30 languages, have become the Bible of the global environmental movement.

Brown has been warning that environmental degradation would lead to global food shortages for many years, and he is still expressing the same warning. On November 7, for instance, he gave a keynote lecture entitled "Rising Temperatures, Falling Water Tables, and World Food Security" at the closed door Forum 2002 - From Feed to Food, sponsored by BASF in Brussels.

"Rising grain prices could cause political instability in many Third World countries," Brown said today.

"This could be the economic indicator that first signals the problem and wakes people up to see that our future is at stake," Brown said. "We have to realize that we must get serious about climate change."