The globally averaged temperature for 2015 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880 according to data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science & Technology Dean Steven Lohrenz and Environmental Policy Professor Chad McGuire offer their reaction to the hottest year in recorded history and the policy and science of the state of our climate.
UMass Dartmouth recently hosted the Global Awareness Education and Action (GAEA) Summit focusing on the impacts of climate change on southeastern Massachusetts.
Should we be surprised that 2015 was the hottest year?
SL: Global average temperatures have been rising since the 1880's, so this does not come as a surprise and rather is consistent with a long-term trend of increasing temperatures.
What do you think the policy/political response will be at the national and/or international level?
CM: This is really tough to answer. In policy, and in particular environmental policy, we often look to what are referred to as "focusing events" to help shed light on a current issue and, as the term suggests, focus government attention. This might be a disaster like Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, or Hurricane Sandy. These are specific events where the impact is immediately observable. The problem with increasing global average temperatures is the harm becomes hidden because it is not immediately observable - there is no discrete disaster. The globe is a big place and temperatures vary around it. Remember last winter here in New England we were dealing with record snowfalls in many areas. So there is not the kind of focusing event one would look to that would really bring public attention to the issue. And that public attention is an important catalyst for political action, particularly in representative forms of government like here in the United States.
How has El Niño been a factor in setting the global temperature?
SL: El Niño is associated with a shift in atmospheric pressure and resulting change in circulation in the equatorial Pacific that suppresses upwelling of cooler water. This can have a global impact on weather and so may well be a factor in the higher temperatures in 2015.
What can an individual reading or hearing about this news today do about it?
CM: I recently gave a talk to a local coastal community on sea level rise. In answering the same question I noted that citizens have to begin to see global warming trends more like an immediate disaster rather than a longer term "wait and see" issue. Without clear public support, the response will likely continue to be incremental at best. The problem there is we may let our natural systems move into a new range of equilibrium that is not immediately obvious, but makes the Earth a less habitable place for humans. So if we can see the issue as more of an emergency and demand more immediate action, there is a greater likelihood that our political process will respond. If we tell politicians they will get rewarded for disaster preparedness, then it is more likely they will focus on preventing and mitigating disaster rather than waiting to respond to it.
How are different parts of the world seeing the impacts of the global temperature warming?
SL: The effects will differ for different regions. Some regions may experience more or less precipitation than usual, and some regions may actually be cooler than usual while others warmer. We may also see differences in the patterns and severity of storms.
About Steven Lohrenz:
Dr. Steven Lohrenz has led SMAST's faculty, staff and students since January 2011. An expert on marine productivity and ecology with a focus on using advanced optics to understand the effect of CO2 on oceans, he previously chaired the University of Southern Mississippi's Department of Marine Science at the NASA John C. Stennis Space Center. While serving as Chair, Lohrenz was involved in the recovery following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and also served on the University Oil Spill Response Team and a statewide Mississippi oil spill response committee during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2009. He received his Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography in 1985 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program
About Chad McGuire:
Dr. McGuire is a Professor of Environmental Policy within UMass Dartmouth's Department of Public Policy. His background is in environmental law and environmental science. Professor McGuire teaches, writes, and practices in the fields of environmental law, policy, sustainability and dispute resolution. He has published more than 20 scholarly articles and three academic texts on these topics over the last ten years. In addition, he works on policy issues related to fisheries management, climate change, coastal management, and land use patterns. Dr. McGuire's expertise has been sought in both private and public forums, and he currently serves on committees for both non-profit and government entities. For more information on Professor McGuire's research on environmental issues, sea-level rise, and climate change, click here.