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U.S. Report Confirms 2016 Was The Hottest Year On Record

Jan 18, 2017
Originally published on January 18, 2017 5:33 pm
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Government scientists announced today that 2016 was the hottest year on Earth since recordkeeping began in the 1800s. That has environmentalists worried. They're also worried about Donald Trump, who has called global warming a hoax. And joining me to discuss the state of the climate and the state of the government's climate research is NPR's science editor Geoff Brumfiel. Hi.


SIEGEL: The report says we just experienced the hottest year on record. Haven't we heard that before?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. This is actually the third year in a row we've had a record. That's according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The global surface temperature was around 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. That may not sound like a lot, but it's huge in climate terms. Now, a big part of this had to do with manmade global warming, but there was an added effect from El Nino, the Pacific weather event. That caused a jump in the long-term steady rise in temperatures. NOAA scientist Deke Arndt explained it to me this way.

DEKE ARNDT: The long-term warming is a lot like riding up an escalator over time. The longer you're on the escalator, the higher you go. And the El Nino phenomenon is like jumping up and down while you're on the escalator.

BRUMFIEL: El Nino is over now, so the temperatures will likely not set a record in 2017. But we're still on this long, upward trend, and there's no end in sight.

SIEGEL: Now, some environmentalists are worried about what the Trump administration might mean for climate science. I want you to walk us through their concerns.

BRUMFIEL: Government plays this huge role. I mean, it produces reports like the one we're seeing here. And Donald Trump is about to become basically the boss of all these climate scientists. Now, as we mentioned, in the past, he said things like it's a Chinese plot to hurt U.S. manufacturing.

SIEGEL: The idea of global warming...

BRUMFIEL: That's right. More recently, he's been more, in his words, open-minded about it, but there's been some worrying signs. The Department of Energy received a questionnaire from the Trump transition team. It asked for the names of scientists who had attended climate meetings. And some people were fearful that could mean that there would be some sort of purge. The administration has since backed away from that. They haven't gotten the names. But people are really worried about what this could mean.

SIEGEL: How could a Trump administration conceivably affect climate change research?

BRUMFIEL: Well, any sort of full-on purge like the one people talked about is very unlikely. I mean, the U.S. has an enormous investment in satellites and weather stations and manpower. I mean, it has a lot of people working on climate change. But politicians have a history of dabbling in climate science. George W. Bush tinkered with an EPA report on climate. Just recently, the Obama administration was accused of fiddling with the fracking report.

And I think that's where you'll see the change. It will be in the way this information is presented to the public and the way it's put out there. Ultimately, that's going to be up to the people who are running these agencies, like NOAA and NASA. And so far, we haven't seen names for those administration positions, so I think we have to wait and see.

SIEGEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.