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Environment

Climate change in 2016 — and continuing into 2017 — has brought the planet into "truly uncharted territory"

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A new report confirms that last year brought record global temperatures, exceptionally low sea ice, and unabated sea level rise

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Global temperature anomalies during 2016 compared to a base period of 1961–1990. (Source: UK Met Office Hadley Centre via World Meteorological Organization) Yesterday I reported that even though the warming influence of El Niño is long gone, February of 2017 brought very little letup in global warming.

SEE ALSO: As the Trump administration proposes to gut climate change funding, the climate continues to change

Now, the World Meteorological Organization is confirming that 2016's "extreme weather and climate conditions have continued into 2017." The report released by the WMO yesterday finds that 2016 brought record global temperatures, as well as exceptionally low sea ice at both poles, unabated sea level rise, and continuing accumulation of heat in the ocean. And those trends appear to be continuing. “Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system, said World Climate Research Programme Director David Carlson, in a WMO press release. We are now in truly uncharted territory.”

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The trend in global average temperature compared to a reference period of 1961–1990, as determined using three separate and independently analyzed sets of data. The grey shading indicates the uncertainty in the dataset from the Hadley Centre. (Source: UK Met Office Hadley Centre via World Meteorological Organization) Here's are some key numbers from the report:

Warming continued in 2016, setting a new temperature record of approximately 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period, and 0.06 °C above the previous highest value set in 2015. Carbon dioxide (CO2) reached new highs at 400.0 ± 0.1 ppm in the atmosphere at the end of 2015. Global sea-ice extent dropped more than 4 million km2 below average – an unprecedented anomaly – in November. Global sea levels rose strongly during the 2015/2016 El Niño, with the early 2016 values making new records.

The report points unequivocally at emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities as the primary cause of global warming, and the resulting decline in sea and land ice, as well as the long-term rise in sea level. "With levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere consistently breaking new records, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident," said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. Each one of the 16 years since 2001 has been at least 0.4 °C above the long-term average of the 1961-1990 base period, which is used by the WMO as a reference for climate-change monitoring. Over the long term, global temperatures have been rising at a rate of 0.1 °C to 0.2 °C per decade, according to the WMO report. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump seems determined to continue denying the scientific reality of climate change. Even as the WMO report was made public yesterday, the Trump administration was laying plans to gut U.S. efforts to curb climate change. As the New York Times reported:

WASHINGTON — President Trump is poised in the coming days to announce his plans to dismantle the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s climate change legacy, while also gutting several smaller but significant policies aimed at curbing global warming.

The moves are intended to send an unmistakable signal to the nation and the world that Mr. Trump intends to follow through on his campaign vows to rip apart every element of what the president has called Mr. Obama’s “stupid” policies to address climate change. The timing and exact form of the announcement remain unsettled, however.

But there actually is some good climate news to report today: According to a new study, with just one change in dietary habits between 2004 and 2014, Americans avoided pumping 185 million metric tons of climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions from 39 million cars.

What was the dietary change? Americans consumed 19 percent less beef.

Other dietary changes, including reduced consumption of carbon-intensive foods such as orange juice and frozen potatoes, boosted the CO2 savings to 271 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, equivalent to the annual emissions of 57 million cars.

Mind you, I definitely enjoy a bacon cheese burger washed down with a nice local brew. But for me at least, these new findings suggest that even modest changes in my habits can have a fairly significant impact.

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