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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, 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.

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