Reviewing Top U.S. Climate News Stories of 2013

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A devastating storm, a new call for action on climate change, and the decline of coal — these and other events highlight the year 2013 in climate change in the U.S., by the numbers.


Many events in 2013 illustrate how climate change increasingly is playing a role in the daily lives of people around the world, whether through efforts to combat it, adapt to it, or devise renewable energy and low-carbon approaches to managing it.

Dealing with climate change creates diverse challenges for scientists, policymakers, businesses. and individuals. Among noteworthy actions in 2013 has been the continuing switch from coal to natural gas in the electricity sector in the U.S., contributing to a decline in U.S. carbon emissions. But that news is tempered by the rise in coal consumption globally, particularly in China and India.

Despite risks climate change poses for humans and natural systems, it continues to evoke little to moderate concern from the American public generally, and concerned scientists and policy makers worry that public awareness lags sharply behind what they say is scientific understanding. While climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that Earth’s climate is warming primarily as a result of fossil fuel combustion, many Americans and policy makers appear unconvinced and unconcerned.

Some of the following choices for noteworthy climate stories — admittedly a selective and partial sampling — may seem unfamiliar, and some of those named here may not make big news for years to come. But no matter what, new and old media in 2013 produced a range of climate change news coverage with some important numbers.

‘Solutions’: 30, The Percent of Coal Fleet Retiring

During his keynote speech in February at the Energy Innovation Summit hosted by the federal advanced energy research agency ARPA-E, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated, “Coal is a dead man walking.”

He continued to hammer at coal on public health and climate change grounds. Bloomberg’s remarks were prescient. By December, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign announced that a third of coal-fired power plants are slated for retirement: 158 of 523 coal-fired plants operating in the U.S. have plans to close down. Coal-generated power now accounts for about 39 percent of electricity generation. The Energy Information Administration reports that U.S. carbon emissions related to energy consumption declined last year, partly because of shifts to natural gas. A recent uptick in gas prices, however, has led the EIA to forecast a slight increase in coal energy, which is expected to provide nearly 40 percent of power across the U.S. in 2014.

Business: 700, The Number of Major Companies that Signed the Climate Declaration

More than 700 companies (including corporate giants such as General Motors, Intel, Owens Corning, and Nike) signed onto Ceres’ Climate Declaration, which calls for strong U.S. action on climate change.

The Declaration states, “Tackling climate change is one of America’s greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.” The effort launched in May with 30 corporate supporters. By December, it had more than 700 signers. More and more businesses now are preparing for action on climate change, including preparations for eventual pricing of carbon emissions: More than two dozen major American companies, including ExxonMobil and Walmart, now planning financially for their future by factoring in plans for carbon pricing.

Public Health: 41, The Number of Dengue cases in the U.S. Florida (23) and Texas (18)

Climate change poses public health concerns, from rising rates of asthma and increased burdens on public health systems after natural disasters to increases in vector borne diseases.

In Fevered (Rodale, 2013), author Linda Marsa reports on how the U.S. is experiencing harmful effects of a warming planet. This summer locally transmitted outbreaks of dengue fever were reported in Florida and Texas. Dengue fever is characterized by high fever, headaches, and bone and joint pain. Climate scientists and public health experts fear a warmer atmosphere will lead to expansion of the range and distribution of dengue fever in the U.S. Since dengue is rare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it is convinced that cases are going unreported.

Science: 50, The Percent of Sea Ice Cover the Arctic Has Lost since 1980

In 2013, the Arctic sea ice minimum was 1.97 million square miles, the sixth lowest minimum on record. While the volume of Arctic sea ice in 2012 reached its smallest levels ever recorded, sea ice in the Arctic has been declining, losing as much as 50 percent of its ice cover since 1980. The loss of sea ice is regarded as a key indicator of climate change.


A still image of the Arctic sea ice on September 13, 2013 with a yellow line identifying the 30-year average extent. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
AMSR2 data courtesy of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Politics: 85, The Number of Seconds President Obama talked about Climate Change in his Second Inaugural Address

In his second inaugural address, President Obama spent more time speaking about climate change than any other individual policy area.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said at the start of nearly a minute and a half devoted to climate change. A few weeks later, Obama again discussed climate change in his State of the Union address. “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change…But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

In June, Obama announced a three-prong approach to deal with climate change: reduce carbon emissions through Environmental Protection Agency regulations; prepare for climate change through actions such as adapting the Department of Defense’s coastal facilities to rising tides; and exert climate leadership internationally.

Warming oceans: 93, The Percent of Energy Stored in Oceans from Climate Change

Global warming is occurring, and the oceans are warming faster than the atmosphere. That’s because oceans can store heat more readily. Some researchers and commentators have expressed surprise that although dramatic increases in greenhouse gases have occurred (global carbon dioxide at least temporarily reached the iconic 400 ppm milestone earlier this year), the average surface temperatures have been relatively steady for the past 16 years. Analyses show that oceans temperatures are continuing to increase, with oceans storing 93 percent of the energy from climate change. The atmosphere, by comparison, stores just one percent.

Public Opinion Inching Up: 58, The Percent of Americans concerned a great deal or fair amount about global warming.

Concern for climate change has increased slightly, a Gallup poll found. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed express a great deal or fair amount of concern about global warming. That’s up from 51 percent two years ago. Concern may be on the rise, but policy action isn’t. In January, a Pew Research Center survey on policy priorities for the President and Congress ranked global warming at the bottom of 21 priorities tested.

Causes and ‘A Gaping Chasm’: 41, The Percent of Americans Who Say Climate Change is Both Happening and Human-Caused

In a comprehensive analysis of scientific literature, the overwhelming consensus by scientists is that recent global warming is human caused. “Our findings prove that there is a strong scientific agreement about the cause of climate change, despite public perceptions to the contrary,” said John Cook of the University of Queensland, skepticalscience.com founder and author of the study, in a statement. “There is a gaping chasm between the actual consensus and the public perception. It’s staggering given the evidence for consensus that less than half of the general public think scientists agree that humans are causing global warming.”

Public perception among Americans doesn’t match reality. Just 41 percent of the American public believes that climate change is happening and human caused.

Behavior: 38, The Percent of Americans Who Say They Would be Willing to Join a Campaign to Convince Elected Officials to Do ‘The Right Thing’ to Address Global Warming

They’ve pushed for divestment of fossil fuel development. They’ve pushed for the closure of coal-fired power plants. And they’ve fought against the Keystone XL pipeline. They’re climate campaigners working to prevent climate change.

A study by Yale researchers concludes that one in four Americans would be willing to convince government officials to move for policy action on climate change. Does that mean we’ll see an increase in climate campaigners in 2014? Although President Obama has had a mixed report card on actions dealing with climate change, advocates say they are hopeful that an increase in climate change activism could tip the scales.

Human Caused: 95-100%, The Likelihood That Humans Have Been the Dominant Cause of Warming since the 1950s

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest assessment in 2013, it offered the strongest language yet that climate change is human caused. And media reports responded to that news in their headlines. The Washington Post put it this way, “Humans almost certainly cause global warming,” and The Wall Street Journal’s headline was “U.N. says humans are ‘extremely likely’ behind global warming.” CNN had “U.N. climate change report points blame at humans,” while Fox News offered it as “U.N. Climate Change Report Dismisses Slowdown in Global Warming.” The Yale Forum had this list of early headlines.

Extreme Weather: No. 1, The Rank of Super Typhoon Haiyan, The Strongest Tropical Cyclone on Record at the Time of Landfall

Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines in November and killed at least 6,000 people. It ranks as the strongest storm ever recorded at the time of landfall.

Certainly Haiyan was a devastating shocker, but other extreme weather events also took heavy tolls this year. Floods drowned parts of Colorado. Wildfires blazed in California and Arizona. New England saw record snow from blizzards. Australia had its hottest month on record. Yet the year didn’t come close to the ruin 11 extreme weather events that had losses exceeding more than $1 billion, including Sandy, caused in the U.S. in 2012.

The Arctic Melt: 400, The Number of Ships Receiving Permits to Cross the Northern Sea Route

Just four years ago, the first commercial ships navigated the Northern Sea Route (also referred to as the Northeast Passage), a shipping lane across the Russian Arctic that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In 2012, 46 ships made it through. By 2013, 400 ships had received permits to cross, a shift that had seemed impossible before melting Arctic ice expanded the shipping season.  Of those, 71 had actually completed the route.* Most of the ships contain petroleum products, but this year the first container ship transporting cargo from China to Europe crossed. The increase in shipping traffic has caused a range of additional concerns, from the political (How will Russia patrol the shipping lanes?) — and how many countries (and which ones) will lay property claims — to scientific (Will an increase in shipping through the arctic lead to more invasive species?)

The Media: 0, The Number of Letters to the Editor The Los Angeles Times Says it Now Will Publish by Those Denying Climate Change is Human-Caused

The Los Angeles Times says it will no longer publish letters to the editor by those maintaining that “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change.” After the L.A. Times took action, other media outlets reacted. The Denver Post said it does not ban letters that are skeptical of human-caused climate change. “What if the letter is from someone whose views are of public interest?” the editorial page editor responded.

Editor’s Note: An edit made here December 19 in response to comment submitted (see below).

Credit: Infographic by Sara Peach.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a Public Policy Scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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12 Responses to Reviewing Top U.S. Climate News Stories of 2013

  1. Bob Koss says:

    I find that figure of 400 ships transiting the Northern Sea Route over the past four years to be unbelievable. It makes me question the accuracy of other figures in the article. The figures for 2011, 2012, 2013 respectively are 41, 46, 71.

    Where did that 400 figure come from? If 400 is accurate then arctic cooling must really have sharply increased post 2010.

    Here is a link to the final 2013 transit page of a site dedicated to shipping information for that route.
    http://www.arctic-lio.com/node/209

    • Bud Ward says:

      Bob Koss: Thanks for your comment. We’ve edited that copy to refer to the number of vessels that had been permitted to cross, with 71 of them actually having completed the crossing. We appreciate your fast and close reading.

  2. Nullius in Verba says:

    “Just four years ago, the first commercial ships navigated the Northern Sea Route”

    Are you serious? The northern sea route has been doing a roaring business since the 1930s.

    “Cargo peaked in 1987 at 6.6 million tons and has since declined as the centrally-planned and controlled economy has unravelled. It was 55 million tons in 1990 and 4.9 million in 1991, when there were more than nine hundred voyages by some two hundred ships.”
    http://www.cnrs-scrn.org/northern_mariner/vol03/tnm_3_2_1-17.pdf

    The news today is that for the first time the Russians are giving permission to Western ships. Previously, due to the cold war and politics generally, passage was limited to domestic traffic. It might or might not develop further. But the obstacles are political and commercial, not practical.

    The Arctic warmed during the 1920-1940 period (http://mclean.ch/climate/Arctic_1920_40.htm), cooled, and then warmed again beginning in the late 1970s. Weather, not climate.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      Sorry, should be 5.5 million tons.

    • John says:

      Are you saying that 1920-1940, 20 years, is weather? And that the changes since 1970 are ‘weather’? Does that mean that the so-called hiatus in warming for the last 10 or so years is weather?

    • Michael Sweet says:

      Nullius,
      Your reference counts all shipping in the Russian North, not through traffic on the Northern Sea Route. On page 14 it states 1/2 of the traffic is between two cities alone. Almost all of the traffic is to cities in Russia, not through traffic. You are comparing apples and oranges. The Northern Sea Route was never open without large icebreakers until the past decade. In the past 5 years every year the entire route could be passed for weeks without icebreaker escort at all. The route was not generally used for passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific until 2007, it was too difficult for the icebreakers to clear the Kara Sea.

      You first reference states that in 1935 35 ships were trapped in the ice for the winter, hardly the open water that we see now every year. Your reference documents the start of global warming. It was never anywhere near as warm from 1920-1940 as it is today. Your reference claims permafrost was 40 km further north, currently permafrost is much further north than that.

      <Cryosphere Today has a graph of Arctic Sea Ice that goes back to 1900 here. You can see that the ice was much more extensive during the 1920-1940 time than it is now. Climate has changed.

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        Almost all the traffic was to Russian cities because almost all the traffic was Russian. For Russian trade between east and west, what there was of it, the trans-Siberian railroad would have been far cheaper. And of course Russia didn’t do so much trade with the outside world, for political reasons.

        The Cryosphere Today graph is interesting, because you can see in it how not only has the level (apparently) dropped, but also the inter-annual variance has dramatically increased. It’s clearest in the autumn figures, which are virtually flat up until 1950, when there is a sudden step change in variance.

        It’s remarkable – isn’t it? – how the apparent precision of the results gets better the further back you go, when you would have thought that with improved monitoring and more traffic, (not to mention satellites,) that the modern figures would be the most accurate.

        I’m sure if it had been the other way round, somebody would have commented on it, and demanded error bars. Confirmation bias is a human universal.

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    And why do you keep doing the “weather-is-climate” stuff? The science says extreme weather can’t be connected to climate change yet. So why keep hinting at it?

    “Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines in November and killed at least 6,000 people. It ranks as the strongest storm ever recorded at the time of landfall.”

    Does that depend on how you measure it?

    http://blogs.wsj.com/searealtime/2013/11/14/is-typhoon-haiyan-the-strongest-storm-ever/

    • Bill Everett says:

      “Extreme weather can’t be connected to climate change yet” is an absurdity from people who should (and in fact probably do) know better. In common parlance, “climate” is the general characteristics of the weather broadly speaking. In a normal friendly conversation, if I asked someone, “And what’s the climate like where you come from?” then I would get a normal answer describing the typical weather, generally speaking. People understand that I am not asking about the temperature today or the precipitation yesterday when I ask what the climate is like.

      More technically, climate is the statistics of weather data. To discuss whether the changes in the statistics of weather data can cause a change in weather seems absurd to me. The fact of the matter is that changes in weather are being observed. Furthermore, we can track consistent trends in the weather statistics over time. Attribution studies establish the human causes of many of these weather changes. Let’s keep straight what is real and really happening and what is our generalized abstraction about that reality. The reality we face is weather changes. The generalized abstraction about that reality is climate change.

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        If you want to be technical, ‘climate’ is the statistical distribution of the weather. Unfortunately, the actual distribution at any one time is unobservable, so it has to be estimated from a sample sequence of outcomes, and for various technical reasons, there are fundamental limits to that. There are a variety of distributions that can output what appear to be systematic trends and changes, but without the distribution changing at all.

        For example, you can pick random numbers r(t) independently with a N(0,1) distribution, plot them out, and see a fuzzy cloud with no visible trend. You can generate a second series x(0) = 7*r(0), x(t) = 0.99*x(t-1)+r(t) for t = 1, 2, 3, … The latter series has zero mean (so there is no trend), and roughly constant variance at every step, and yet plotting an instance of the sequence shows apparent strong systematic trends and changes, called ‘spurious trends’. The visual appearance of the plot is very different, but the instantaneous ‘climate’ is likewise unchanging.

        Detecting genuine versus spurious trends is a delicate statistical matter, that depends on what assumptions you make about the stochastic process generating the sequence. There is a standard method for identifying such processes (approximately) which shows the best fit to the temperature signal (from a large and fairly general class) is given by a trendless ARIMA(3,1,0) sequence. But the IPCC instead choose to model it as an ARIMA(1,0,0)+trend process, (despite the statistics showing this is almost certainly incorrect,) and thereby detect a non-zero trend.

        Even under the IPCC’s incorrect statistical assumptions, most forms of extreme weather show no significant trends or changes. Such changes and variations as are observable cannot be distinguished from potential ‘spurious trends’. There might be a trend. There might not. A few climate variables, such as total precipitation, do appear to have changed. However, we cannot be sure.

        Unequivocal attribution would require controlled experimentation with the climate system – which is impossible – so any attribution is necessarily equivocal. The attribution studies that have been done cannot account for all sources of uncertainty, and generally rely on unvalidated climate models known to differ from the observed climate in many respects, so the attribution statements found in documents like the IPCC’s are not quantified scientific results backed by empirical evidence, but statements of “expert judgement” based on the opinions of researchers, counting publications, views for and against, and so on.

        As Ben Santer, IPCC lead author on the relevant chapter said: “It’s unfortunate that many people read the media hype before they read the chapter. I think the caveats are there. We say quite clearly that few scientists would say the attribution issue was a done deal.”

        Anyone who says it is is going against the mainstream science in doing so. The scientifically accurate statement is that at least some of the observed climatic changes cannot be explained with current state-of-the-art models except by means of anthropogenic influences. That’s a rather different statement to the way some people interpret it.

        In any case, whether the decadal trends in climate variables over continent-scale areas are attributable or not, it is far more widely agreed amongst climate scientists that events like Haiyan cannot and should not be attributed to climate change. There have always been severe and damaging typhoons, and there always will be severe and damaging typhoons. It’s nature. Mindlessly and unnecessarily seizing on every dramatic weather event to misleadingly connect it to one’s ‘climate change’ campaign, particularly when human tragedies are clearly being used for activist political ends, erodes one’s credibility, and eventually that of science itself. Why would you do that?

  4. John Garrett says:

    I couldn’t write a more clear, succinct statement—

    “We’re spending money that we don’t have, to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, at the behest of people we didn’t elect.”

    -Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Clacton, UK