Changing Climate

by Record Staff

It’s not a talking point but a scientific fact: global temperatures in 2010 were the warmest on record, in a dead heat with 2005.

That’s the finding of the Columbia-affiliated NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, located above Tom’s Restaurant of Seinfeld fame on 112th Street and Broadway. As reported in the Dec. 14 issue of Reviews of Geophysics, global temperature is rising as fast in the past decade as it did in the prior two, according to records that go back to 1880. The analysis is compiled from weather data from more than 1,000 meteorological stations world-wide, satellite observations of sea surface temperature and Antarctic research station measurements. Says James E. Hansen, Goddard director and adjunct professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia, “If the warming trend continues, as is expected, and if greenhouse gases continue to increase, the 2010 record will not stand for long.”

Across Columbia, an array of climate science research reflects that conclusion and its implications. Scientists from the Earth Institute Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have long played a pioneering role in climate change, from measuring its effect on polar ice to creating computer models that predict the Earth’s temperature trend. Others at the Earth Institute, including social scientists, economists and professors of business and law assess how to measure, mitigate and adapt the effects of global warming. Researchers at the engineering school are working on a range of clean energy and sustainable technologies.

Yet as a new Republican-majority House of Representatives begins work with an agenda to limit government regulation of all kinds, it has raised new challenges to the broad scientific consensus on the man-made causes of global warming. But the difficult politics of climate change have been bipartisan; even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House in 2009–2010, it proved impossible to enact a new energy bill. On the international front, progress on a new climate treaty has also stalled.

In this issue of The Record we feature several bulletins from the climate change front at Columbia. Law professor Michael Gerrard, who directs the Center for Climate Change Law, discusses the dim current prospects for climate legislation. Economist Scott Barrett suggests a new approach to getting countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Lamont-Doherty researchers document centuries of climate change, from the Dead Sea to America’s desert Southwest. Climate scientist with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Gavin Schmidt, and adjunct senior research scientist with the Center for Climate Systems Research, explains why scholars cannot stand on the sidelines in the contentious political battle over climate science.

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