The hottest year
One degree Fahrenheit. That's all. That's the margin by which the average national temperature in the United States in 2012 broke the record for the highest ever recorded.
But before anyone dismisses the new record as being a small difference, remember that the normal variance for the nation's average temperature, year to year, is measured in tiny fractions of a degree. The range since the late 19th century has only ranged between 50 and 54.3 degrees. Until 2012, that is, when it reached a record 55.3 degrees.
So the one-degree difference is properly referred to as "shattering" the old mark, in the same sense that a difference of only half of a second could honestly be said to have shattered a previous best for, say, the 100-meter dash.
This new data point, combined with news that Salt Lake City's average temperature last year was a full 3.8 degrees above normal, should help to brush aside any lingering denial of the facts of global climate change and to focus our national attention squarely on what we are going to do about it.
Of course, it is unlikely to do any such thing. As the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair once remarked, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
This is the case with far too many people of wealth and influence. And that includes far too many of those who hold positions of power in Utah, a state that is lagging far behind its peers in the development of the many forms of renewable energy that do not increase the world's output of carbon dioxide and other climate-changing compounds.
The look back at 2012 shows, in so many ways, not only that our climate is changing, but that the effects of only small differences in average temperatures can have devastating effects on the world. A killer drought in America's corn belt. Declining water levels in the Great Lakes and other significant bodies of fresh water. Superstorm systems that move west to east, shattering cities and crops across the Plains, and east to west, bringing catastrophic rains, waves and power outages to New York and New Jersey.
So what should have been a marathon approach to our energy needs, developing over time the technologies, policies and laws that would shift from a carbon-based economy to a renewable one, is about to become, in historic terms, a sprint.
It is past time for the United States and the various state governments to be about such measures as carbon taxes, cap-and-trade regimes and requirements that electric utilities provide minimum percentages of their output from renewable sources. Because it is real. And it does matter.