EXPERT REACTION: 2016 confirmed as hottest year on record

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The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year on record. The average global temperature in 2016 was about 0.07°C warmer than the previous record set in 2015, and about 1.1°C higher than the pre-industrial period. The WMO makes its assessments using data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre, and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor William Laurance is director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (TESS) at James Cook University

I think somebody should fry an egg on the sidewalk and then send through a photo to Donald Trump.  He doesn’t seem to believe the science, but maybe he’d get that.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 2:07pm
Professor John Cole is the Executive Director of the Institute of Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and is an Honorary Professor at the UQ Business School

Regional Australia between a rock and a hard place on climate change

News from the World Meteorological Organisation that 2016 was the hottest on record is a reminder of the challengingly vulnerable position regional Australia finds itself in with climate change. Facing the future, regional Australia is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, its core economy agriculture will be hit increasingly negatively by variable climate and extremes of weather, including severe heat, leading to changing crop patterns and farming practice.  On the other hand, governments of all persuasions still find carbon-intensive climate-impacting coal-mining projects expedient generators of local employment and taxes and royalties. Managing the transition to a low carbon future while ensuring viable regional economies remains one of Australia’s core challenges.  Dismissing global warming as someone else’s problem or arguing that water security for regional Australia will be found only in new dams does little to assure our regions of a viable future.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 1:42pm

Dr Blair Trewin is a member of the WMO's Task Team on Homogenisation and the lead author of the 2016 WMO Global Climate Statement

2016 has been clearly the world's warmest year on record. Almost the entire world was warmer than average in 2016, with every inhabited continent having a year ranking in the top five, and both land and ocean temperatures were at record highs.

Whilst the 2015-16 El Nino gave a modest boost to last year's temperatures, the major contributor is the long-term warming trend, with five- and ten-year average temperatures also reaching record highs.

2016's temperatures were more than 1°C above pre-industrial levels. Whilst 2016's annual record is unlikely to be broken again in 2017 in the absence of an El Nino, warming trends are continuing unabated and a new record is only a matter of time.

The major El Nino year of 1998, easily the hottest year on record at the time (and the only year out of the 17 warmest which was not in the 21st century), would only be an average year by the standards of the last decade.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 12:48pm
Professor Wasim Saman is a Professor of Sustainable Energy Engineering, Research Leader at the CRC for Low Carbon Living, Node Co-Leader at the Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative and Director of the Barbara Hardy Institute at the University of South Australia

With the recent trend  of increasing emissions in Australia, the temperature rise declared by the World Meteorological Organisation is another symptom of human induced climate change. It indicates that without committing to serious measures to reduce emissions by Australia and other major emitters, the recent series of unusual weather events we have witnessed in Australia will continue escalating in magnitude and frequency.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 12:46pm
Dr Hartmut Fuenfgeld is Senior Lecturer and Program Manager, Master of International Urban and Environmental Management, at RMIT University - School of Global, Urban and Social Studies.

2016 has just been declared the hottest year on record, as the third year in row. The evidence of global temperatures rising is both overwhelming and extremely worrying. In Australia and other climate change hot spots, there is little doubt that we will see more frequent and more intense heat waves, bush fires and other extreme weather events as a consequence of increased atmospheric volatility.

We are now only a inches away from surpassing the 1.5°C threshold of global warming that the Paris climate agreement stipulated - and it gets increasingly difficult to meet this target. Australia, as a wealthy country with high capacity to act, needs to massively ramp up its greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Equally, Australian governments and private sector companies need to invest in climate change adaptation and resilience measures to now plan for the unavoidable impacts that global warming is already bringing to our shores - quite literally in the case of sea level rise, coral bleaching and coastal erosion.

We have one of the highest exposures to multiple climate change risks but we also have a high capacity to adapt - Australia needs to meet its global responsibility as the largest per-capita emitter of greenhouse gases, and it needs to act responsibly towards its own people, who will increasingly suffer the adverse consequences of climate change impacts'.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 12:38pm
Dr Liz Hanna is an Honorary Fellow of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, and President of the Climate and Health Alliance

Last year, global average land and water temperatures were 0.94°C hotter than the 20th century average, but the land surface temperature was 1.43°C hotter. This is where people live. 

The planet was last this warm over 100,000 years ago when humans were nomadic and using stone tools, and before we settled into communities and commenced agriculture. Most of our recent evolution since that time has been in a colder climate, so we have evolved to keep warm which we do through behaviours such as wearing skins (and now clothing), living in caves (now houses).

We physiologically evolved to keep warm by generating considerable heat when we move. This extra warming from climate change is therefore problematic as it puts us closer to upper thermal tolerance. Australia is especially at risk as we are 8°C hotter than the world average.

It is especially worrying that the planet has not experienced such high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for 4 million years, so more warming is coming. Our warmest years of the past are now our coolest. Heat is the new normal, so all Australians, industry and Australia’s health sector must prepare for the heat. The health sector is preparing a strategy to help steer us towards this new hot future.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 12:37pm
Professor Mark Tjoelker is Theme Leader, Ecosystem Function & Integration at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University

The record-breaking increases in surface air temperatures worldwide reflect a greater frequency, intensity and duration of extreme temperatures and heatwaves in many regions, including Australia. As high temperature records are shattered year after year with climate warming, we can expect further acceleration of climate risks to native plants and agricultural crops as temperatures approach limits to thermal tolerance and amplify the effects of other climate stressors such as drought.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 11:40am
Professor Mark Howden is Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University

The new global temperature record confirms what has been clear for some years now. The challenge that lies before us is to do something about it. There are two fundamental types of actions: firstly, by reducing emissions so as to limit future warming and increases in climate extremes. Secondly, by adapting to the changes that are already happening and are likely to happen further. Australia in particular has significant potential capabilities in regard to adaptation but we are falling short on implementing these, incurring as a result unnecessary costs to our people, environment and economy. 

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 10:59am
Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Future Fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW on the changing nature of heatwaves.

For the last 12 months, climate scientists have correctly predicted that 2016 would surpass 2015 as the hottest year on record, which in turn surpassed 2014. 2016 was 1.1°C above pre-industrial temperatures – this means we have very little room left if we want to keep global warming at or 1.5°C.

While we may expect slightly cooler years than 2016 in the short term, they will still be warmer than global temperatures before the industrial revolution. In the longer term, we can expect more record warm years as we rapidly head towards a much warmer and more extreme global climate, thanks to human activity.

We have a lot of work to do if we want to limit our impact on the climate system by the end of this century – 1.5°C will soon pass us by and 2°C is looking dubious.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 10:53am
Professor David Stern is Director, International and Development Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

The global temperature figures released by NOAA officially confirm that 2016 was the hottest year since there have been widespread measurements with thermometers in the 19th Century.

The temperatures of individual months in 2016 released up to now suggested that it would be the hottest year on record.

The high temperatures recorded in 2015 and 2016 are not that surprising because, while surface temperatures were fairly flat between 1998 and 2014 – the so-called pause or hiatus in warming – storage of heat in the ocean continued at a rapid pace throughout that period. In the end, the atmosphere and ocean have to be in equilibrium and surface temperatures are now catching up to the heat stored in the ocean.

As greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase in the atmosphere we should expect global temperatures to continue to increase in coming years, though the path will continue to be erratic due to interactions between the atmosphere and ocean.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 10:41am
Ian Lowe is Emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, Qld and former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

2014 was the hottest year on record, then it was eclipsed by 2015, now in turn overtaken by 2016. The trend is very clear. The average global temperature last year was 1.1°C above the pre-industrial level. The Paris agreement set an aspiration of keeping the increase in average global temperature below 1.5°C, with an absolute limit of 2°C. It is clear from the latest data that urgent action is now needed. That means no new coal mines or coal-fired power stations and a managed transition to clean energy. We are already paying a very high price for climate change, most obviously in the recent bushfires and heat stress affecting vulnerable people.

The current Australian government targets are nowhere near meeting our share of the global change needed to avoid dangerous climate change. We need to move urgently to phase out coal-fired electricity in favour of renewable energy, and to dramatically improve public transport to reduce car use. The highest priority should be improving the efficiency of using energy. The 2003 National Framework for Energy Efficiency showed we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent using cost-effective existing technology, paying for itself in less than four years. That is not a free lunch, it is a lunch we would be paid to eat!

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 10:38am
Dr Sophie Lewis is a Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at UNSW Canberra

2016 was the hottest year on record, again. It beat the global temperature record set in 2015, and previously in 2014. It was so extreme that climate scientists accurately predicted 2016 would be record-breaking even midway through the year. This period of extraordinary global heat is linked to climate change. Within just a decade or two, we can expect these record hot temperatures to become average or even cool years because of further greenhouse warming.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 10:30am
Dr Andrew King is Climate Extremes Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, University of Melbourne.

For the third year in a row the globe has set a new temperature record. This is not a chance occurrence - without our influence on the climate we wouldn't be reaching these temperatures.

We've seen many extreme events over the last year including a mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. These are a sign of what's to come as the warming continues. We have to make rapid and drastic cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid reaching the 1.5°C and 2°C limits for global warming set out in the Paris agreement. If we don't do this we'll see more damaging extreme events in Australia and across the world.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2017 10:29am

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