By now you’ve seen the headline: 2016 was the hottest year on record. The news has been paired with predictions of civilization’s imminent demise. But a closer look at the evidence reveals that the political heat is overwrought—and there’s still no reason to re-engineer the global economy to mitigate small climate fluctuations.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced this week that last year was the warmest in the agency’s 137-year series, and that 2016 broke the previous record for the third consecutive year. This sounds alarming, until you read that 2016 edged out 2015 by a mere 0.04 degrees Celsius. That’s a fraction of the margin of error. Atmospheric data from satellites detected similarly small warming over previous years. In other words, no one really knows if last year was a record.
Here’s what we do know: 2015 and 2016 were major years for El Niño, a Pacific trade winds phenomenon known to produce temperature spikes. The Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels has detailed in these pages how in 1998, another big El Niño year, average surface temperatures increased about a quarter-degree Fahrenheit and then dropped in the following years. That is similar to the increase in 2015—and by the end of 2016 temperatures were falling back toward 2014 levels. Even NOAA admits El Niño’s role.
These nuances are important because phrases such as “hottest year ever” are waved around as a pretext for political action that usually involves giving more control over the economy to governments. This is inevitably sold as urgently required to save the planet.
But even these regulations, taxes and subsidies would do little to reverse global temperature trends, though they could reduce the economic growth and wealth creation needed to cope with the consequences of higher temperatures. That is true of all President Obama’s ministrations—from the Clean Power Plan to the Paris climate accord to subsidies for Al Gore’s green-energy portfolio.
The most inconvenient truth during the Obama years has been that the biggest cause of lower U.S. CO 2 emissions has been the energy shift to natural gas from coal. Yet the climate-change lobby opposes fracking.
The Earth’s surface has warmed over the last century by close to a degree Celsius, and the trend bears watching. But the additional questions to consider are about future magnitudes and impact, and what if any policies would make a difference without doing serious economic harm. The best insurance against the risks of climate change is economic growth and innovation—more efficient batteries, for example.
But adding to human knowledge on climate requires a thorough airing and debate over the evidence. That won’t happen as long as alarmists continue to try to shut down debate by spinning doomsday tales about sizzling temperatures.