May 11, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Global temperatures are cooler in 2021 than other recent years

Data: NASA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

With a moderate La Niña event in the tropical Pacific Ocean, global temperatures in 2021 are running decidedly cooler when compared to recent years.

Why it matters: The lack of a new warmest year record in 2021 could sap some of the sense of urgency among policymakers in the U.S. and abroad during a critical year for enacting stricter emissions cuts to meet the Paris Agreement's targets.

The big picture: According to NASA, March was the coldest such month globally since 2014. New information from the Copernicus Climate Change Service, a European agency, shows that April was also relatively cool, coming in as the seventh-warmest such month since 1979.

  • Europe was hit especially hard by cold snaps during April, breaking records in England and causing an agricultural disaster in France as winemakers saw their crops freeze on the vine.

Yes, but: Even with the recent cold in Europe and the cooling influence of La Niña, the planet is still headed for a top-10 or even top-5 warmest year finish, climate scientist Zeke Hausfather tells Axios. "This is well in line with the long-term warming trend."

Context: Although carbon dioxide emissions temporarily dropped last year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, that's not the reason for the slight dip in temperatures this year.

  • In fact, greenhouse gases continued to build up in the atmosphere in 2020 into 2021.

Reality check: With human-caused global warming, it's the long-term trends that matter, not single years (despite their convenient news pegs).

  • "Scientists know climate change is happening against a backdrop of natural climate variability: There will always be winters and summers, La Niñas and El Niños," NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel tells Axios.
  • "I like to use a doping analogy: When an athlete uses banned substances, she's more likely to win. But she probably won't win every single time — nor is she expected to," Marvel said.

What we're watching: With drought worsening in the West and wildfires already breaking out, this could be another year in which climate change-fueled disasters dominate headlines in the U.S., negating any effects of a slight pullback in global temperature anomalies.

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