Was 2014 the hottest year or wasn't it - and does it matter? -
Widely reported this past week was confirmation from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), concurring with the Japanese Meteorological Agency, that 2014 as the hottest year on record.
NASA's GISS Surface Temperature Analysis shows an average global temperature for the year at at 14.68° Celsius (58.42 Fahrenheit), 1.22° C above the 20th-century average. The analysis from NOAA was a slightly more conservative, indicating the global average of 14.52° C.
As one month after another broke heat records in 2014, especially in the world's oceans, the continuing and accelerating trend of heat energy in the global climate system seems increasingly apparent. For global warming - or climate change, call it what you will because it doesn't make any differenceand never has - the trend is as clear as any Wall Street trader looking for a trending market could hope for: Up.
Or is it?
While some headlines claim the 2014 record finally blows away the well-worn denier myth that global warming stopped in 1998, it unsurprisingly has a little wear left in it. The Daily Mail published a response to NASA and NOAA announcement claiming that NASA scientists are only 38 percent sure that 2014 set a record at all, nor any year since - you guessed it - 1998.
An article in The Federalistgoes so far as to claim 2014 as "the most dishonest year on record." Senior writer Robert Tracinski, who studied Philosophy at the University of Chicago and writes mostly about politics, markets and foreign policy, gets caught up largely in semantics, the "ambiguity" of proxy data, and the fact that it's been hotter in the past. Citing poorly phrased headlines, Tracinski appears to assert that the "liberal media" and dishonest scientists have purposely misled the public discourse on climate - even as he himself misleads the public discourse on climate. Tracinski even takes yet another tired, weak stab at Michael Mann's "hockey stick."
All pretty standard stuff.
No, 2014 was not the "hottest year ever." Yes, a headline saying the year was "the hottest in recorded history" might confuse some people to which exactly what is meant by "recorded history" (probably just reading beyond the headline might ameliorate that confusion, but I'll take the point). Yes, there is a margin of error within which 2014 may only be one of the warmest years on record - along with 2013, 2010, 2005, 2003 and, yes of course, 1998.
In the end, it's all noise isn't it?
I can link endlessly to websites, articles and pontificators all day long, on either side of this "debate."
On one side self-styled "skeptics" question the very honesty of NASA and NOAA (I surmise by implication the Japanese Meteorological Agency as well). On the other headlines heralding the "hottest year ever" confuse the incurious and make for a feeding frenzy for writers like Tracinski. Everyone run to their corners.
Missing the forest for the trees
Whether 2014 was the hottest year since record keeping began in 1850 or not (I'll go with the scientific agencies that suggest it was), getting bogged down in the rhetoric surrounding it, I believe, misses the point - yet again.
Ask any insurance company how they see the climactic trend, talk to military commanders about their perception of climate risk and national security. Check in with farmers, hunters and outdoorsman on how their beloved land, ecosystems and habitats are changing. Ask airline pilots if they are suddenly experiencing more extreme turbulence events. It would seem there's more energy roiling the atmosphere.
As all-encompassing and complex as climate is, it's on part of the picture. The expansion of human endeavor and sheer numbers is at once thrilling and sobering. To assume this expansion can be limitless and without consequence is a risk from which most would likely shy away, if they could be allowed to think clearly about it.
It is time to look beyond "record hot years" (as much of a signpost as they are) and think more holistically about planetary boundaries - the total Earth system in which we live.
We ignore these boundaries at our own peril. We embrace these natural limits and learn to live within and alongside this interconnected, interdependent Earth and thrive.
Many accuse such thinking as a desire to go back to "living in cave." But there is no going back, except through utter failure. The only path is forward and a business-as-usual, "what, me worry?" mindset is no longer viable.
So, does it matter if 2014 was the hottest year on record. I guess that depends on what we do in 2015 and every year thereafter.
Image credit: Anonymous9000, courtesy flickr. Climate graph courtesy of NASA