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A Look Back on 2012, the Year of Extreme Weather Events

Temperatures hit an unseasonably warm 61˚F in Washington D.C. earlier this week. The Middle East is blanketed in record rainfall and rare heavy snowfall, ending a nearly decade-long drought. Australia witnessed its hottest day on record this past week, stoking wildfires. And China is experiencing a bitterly cold winter, where temperatures are the lowestthey’ve been in almost three decades. We’re only two weeks into 2013, and already we are getting a reminder of the extreme year we just emerged from.

2012: A Year of Extreme Weather

How extreme were last year’s weather and climatic events? In the continental United States, 2012 was the hottest year on record and the second most extreme year, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On top of that, the United States experienced 11 extreme weather events that each caused more than $1 billion in damages.

And 2012 did not spare the rest of the world; it brought severe drought to the African Sahel, torrential rains to China, Europe’s worst cold snap in 25 years, and flooding in Manila and Bangladesh, among other devastating events.

We took stock of 2012’s extreme events in an interactive timeline. It is by no means comprehensive, but reminds us how climate change is affecting global communities and citizens’ lives, livelihoods, infrastructure, and ecosystems.

By the Numbers: Analyzing the U.S. National Climate Assessment

The draft U.S. National Climate Assessment was released last week, confirming that the climate is changing, that it is primarily due to human activities, and that the United States is already being adversely impacted. These top-line messages should come as no surprise, as they reconfirm the major findings of previous National Climate Assessments and of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent reports.

But the 1,000-plus pages of the Assessment also carry important findings—many of which have not been highlighted in media reports thus far. WRI’s experts reviewed the assessment in its entirety. Below, we boil down some of the highlights from this comprehensive body of work, including its findings on how increases in greenhouse gas emissions have impacted temperature, sea level rise, precipitation, ice cover, ecosystems, and human health in the United States and globally.

Temperature

Build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has already caused America’s average temperature to rise by 1.5 ˚F since 1895, according to the assessment. With continued increases in emissions, U.S. temperatures are projected to increase 5-10˚F by the end of the century. Rising temperatures have implications for human health, drought, storm intensity, and species and ecosystem health, among others. A few other notable statistics include:

New National Climate Assessment Shows America on Course for Unprecedented Warming

This post was co-written with Forbes Tompkins, an intern with WRI's Climate and Energy Program.

A new federal report reveals alarming statistics on climate change. According to the 3rd National Climate Assessment, released in draft form today from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the world could warm by more than 12°F by the end of the century if action isn’t taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The evidence is clear and mounting,” said WRI’s president, Andrew Steer, in response to the report. “The United States sits at the center of the climate crisis. Record heat is devastating crops, rivers are drying up, and storms are bearing down on our cities. Climate change is taking its toll on people and their economies, and will only become more intense without a strong and rapid response here in the United States and around the globe. It’s not too late to take action, but given lags in policy and geophysical processes, the window is closing.”

This assessment comes on the heels of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) announcement earlier this week that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the contiguous United States. According to NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, the country saw 356 all-time temperature highs (and only four all-time lows) tied or broken and experienced 11 extreme weather events each causing more than $1 billion in damages.

Here are a few of the report’s key findings:

A Critical Moment to Harness Green Infrastructure—Not Concrete—to Secure Clean Water

This post was co-written with James Mulligan, Executive Director at Green Community Ventures.

Natural ecosystems provide essential services for our communities. Forests and wetlands, for example, filter the water we drink, protect neighborhoods from floods and droughts, and shade aquatic habitat for fish populations.

While nature provides this “green infrastructure,” water utilities and other decision-makers often attempt to replicate these services with concrete-and-steel “gray infrastructure”—usually at a much greater cost. Particularly where the equivalent natural ecosystems are degraded, we build filtration plants to clean water, reservoirs to regulate water flow, and mechanical chillers to protect fish from increasing stream temperatures. And even though healthy ecosystems can reduce the operational costs of these structures, investing in restoring or enhancing various types of green infrastructure is rarely pursued—either as a substitute for or complement to gray infrastructure.

Despite America’s history of reliance on gray infrastructure, now is a critical time to tip the scales in favor of a green infrastructure approach to water-resource management. Investing in the conservation and improved management of natural ecosystems to secure and protect water systems can keep costs down and create jobs. Green infrastructure can also provide a suite of co-benefits for the air we breathe, the places we play, the wildlife we share our landscapes with, and the climate we live in.

A Holiday Gift from the EPA: New Rules Will Cut Toxic Air Pollution from American Boilers

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency finalized the Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) rule today to protect people from exposure to toxic air pollution from industrial, commercial, and institutional boilers. By encouraging industry to use cleaner-burning fuels and to make efficiency improvements, Boiler MACT will modernize U.S. industry, reduce toxins, and cut carbon pollution.

The Boiler MACT rules, which are required by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, will only target the most significant sources of toxic air pollution. Most boiler-based emissions come from a small handful of very large industrial and commercial facilities that operate coal, oil, and biomass-fired boilers. As such, according to EPA:

  • Fewer than 1 percent of all U.S. boilers will be required to reduce their emissions to levels that are consistent with demonstrated maximum achievable control technologies, or MACT standards. Operators of these types of boilers will have three years to reduce toxic air pollution and meet new emissions limits.

  • A larger subset of U.S. industrial, commercial, and institutional boilers (roughly 13 percent) would not be required to meet the specific MACT standards, but would need to reduce their toxic air emissions through other means (as described below).

  • About 86 percent of all U.S. boilers are relatively small, limited-use, or gas-fired boilers, and are not covered by the new rules.

Fast-Start Finance: Where Do We Stand at the End of 2012?

This piece was co-authored with Smita Nakhooda of the Overseas Development Institute, with inputs from Noriko Shimizu (IGES) and Sven Harmeling (Germanwatch).

Developed countries self-report that they have delivered more than $33 billion in fast-start climate finance between 2010 and 2012, exceeding the pledges they made at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. But how much of this finance is new and additional? Developing countries and other observers have raised questions about the nature of this support, as well as where and how it is spent. Independent scrutiny of country contributions can shed light on the extent to which fast-start finance (FSF) has truly served as a mechanism to scale-up climate finance. Our organizations have analyzed the FSF contributions of the United Kingdom, United States, and Japan, and analysis of Germany’s effort is forthcoming.

Our analysis revealed four key insights into the FSF experience:

1) Developed Countries Have Ramped Up Climate Support

The FSF period has been a difficult one: Developed countries pledged their climate finance support at the advent of unprecedented economic difficulty brought on by the 2008 financial crisis. Nonetheless, developed countries have sustained support for climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries, despite fiscal austerity measures that have substantially cut back public spending. Indeed, all of the countries we reviewed appear to have significantly increased their international climate spending since 2010.

In many cases, data limitations impede a direct or accurate comparison of fast-start spending to related expenditures before 2010. But the UK appears to have increased its climate finance four-fold relative to environment-related spending before the FSF period. Germany has nearly doubled climate-related finance. Japan previously mobilized $2 billion per year in climate finance through the Cool Earth Partnership; under FSF, it reports average spending of more than $5 billion per year. Finally, through its Global Climate Change Initiative, the United States has increased core climate funding from $316 million in FY09 to an average of $886 million per year in FY10 to FY12.

3 Myths About America's Clean Energy Future

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Now that the election is over, elected officials need to return to the important act of governing. Building a low-carbon energy future will be essential for the country’s continued prosperity and security.

Yet in recent months, we have witnessed a heated national debate—and significant misinformation—about public investment in clean energy and the government’s role in America’s energy future. Below, we seek to inform a path forward on this critical issue by separating fact from fiction.

Myth 1: Funding Renewable Energy Is a Waste of Taxpayers’ Money

In fact, federal investments in solar, wind, and geothermal companies, largely through stimulus funds, proved to be a success.

Following is a statement by Andrew Steer, President, World Resources Institute:

“With his re-election, President Obama has the opportunity to fulfill the promise of his campaign and tackle the greatest challenges of our generation. At the top of the list should be climate change—which is already taking a serious toll on people, property, resources and the economy.

Silence on Climate Change Is Deafening

This post originally appeared in the National Journal's Energy Experts blog as a response to the question: "What Is Climate Silence Costing Us?"

The recent silence on climate change in the U.S. political discourse is extremely troubling. As we can see from the recent spate of extreme weather events, the costs of inaction are clear in terms of both environmental and economic impacts. If we are going to meet the challenge of the global climate threat, we need to have a real, rational discussion about climate change. Having that discussion requires national leadership on this issue.

The irony is that despite the relative silence on the campaign trail, U.S. public opinion on climate change is shifting, with a growing number of people recognizing that more needs to be done to address this issue. As WRI’s president Andrew Steer said in a recent New York Times interview, “On climate change, the political discourse here is massively out of step with the rest of the world, but also with the citizens of this country. Polls show very clearly that two-thirds of Americans think this is a real problem and needs to be addressed.”

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