The Climate in 2015: Record Extreme Weather and Historic Progress

Posted by: Alana Miller on

Last week, two climate agencies made a perhaps unsurprising, but nonetheless sobering, announcement on the state of the planet: 2015 was the warmest year on Earth since recordkeeping began in 1880. Furthermore, temperatures in 2015 broke the previous record, set in 2014, by the largest margin ever recorded.

For the U.S., 2015 was the second warmest year on record (after 2012) and was accompanied by a host of extreme weather ranging from intense cold in the Northeast, to a severe drought in California, to record flooding in the Carolinas. For the first time on record, wildfires in the U.S. burned more than 10 million acres in a single year.

As Gerald A. Meehl, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told the New York Times: “The whole system is warming up, relentlessly.”

Sobering, for sure.

But scattered through the grim analysis, there were also many inspiring milestones hit in 2015.

For instance, in 2015, global investment in clean energy reached a record $329 billion, nearly six times the level of investment in 2004.

In the U.S. last year:

  • Sixty-one percent of new electric capacity came from wind and solar energy, while less than one percent came from coal or oil.
  • Wind power hit a new milestone with 70 gigawatts of capacity installed across the country – enough to power 19 million homes.
  • Another American family or business installed solar power every two minutes.
  • As renewable energy flourished, U.S. production of coal dropped to a 30-year low.

On the transportation front, New York City’s Citi Bike set a national record for number of trips taken on a U.S. bike share system in one year, breaking 10 million trips in 2015. Studies last year continued to show that Americans, particularly Millennials, increasingly prefer to live in places where they can walk, bike and take transit.

Major steps were taken in 2015 looking towards the future. For the first time ever, power plants in the U.S. will be held to national standards limiting carbon pollution, under the Clean Power Plan. And late last year, 195 countries adopted the first-ever legally binding climate agreement to limit global warming to 2°C.

Let us hope that the momentum for change continues to accelerate -- after all, the stakes are incredibly high. To illustrate what’s at stake, we are partnering with Environment America to release a second edition of our extreme weather map, documenting Americans’ real experiences with climate impacts. Stay tuned for the map’s release in early March, or submit your own story.