January 9, 2013; Source: National Geographic

At a recent press conference, scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2012 was the warmest year in the recorded history of the continental U.S. Temperatures last year averaged one degree warmer than the previous warmest year, which was 1998. A single degree may sound like a minor issue, but climate scientists assert that it is actually a very dramatic increase.

NOAA’s Jake Crouch explains to National Geographic that the Earth’s average temperature has not varied very much in all of the years that it has been recorded; the coldest year on the books was 1917 and the difference between that year and 1998, the previous hottest year, was only 4.2 degrees. Crouch says, “2012 is now more than one degree above the top of that. So we’re talking about well above the pack in terms of all the years we have data for the U.S.”

Although the NOAA data does not specify a cause for 2012’s record heat, the finding has naturally triggered renewed concern about climate change. For instance, Kevin Trenberth of the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Atmospheric Research states, “It is abundantly clear that we are seeing [human-caused] climate change in action. These records do not occur like this in an unchanging climate.”

Meanwhile, a team of scientists published a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters yesterday that argues that a prior model for dealing with global warming may no longer work, as the problem has gotten worse since that model was proposed in 2004. Now, the authors argue, “solving the climate problem requires that emissions peak and decline in the next few decades, and ultimately fall to near zero.” This zero emissions plan, the authors write, will require a “fundamental and disruptive transformation of the global energy system.” They conclude, “An integrated and aggressive set of policies and programs is urgently needed to support energy technology innovation across all stages of research, development, demonstration, and commercialization.”

Is the human race up to the authors’ energy innovation and zero emissions challenge? The first step is mobilization, and on that front, it feels like we’ve lost a little bit of steam since the days of Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio and everyone else under the sun coming to the fore to talk climate change. Maybe these new reports will spur nonprofit environmental advocates and their allies to generate a renewed sense of urgency on climate change among the general public. But it won’t happen by default. Unfortunately for humanity, climate change is one of those pernicious problems that can get lost in the shuffle due to its fatal media flaw: it’s always a story, so it’s never a story. No, if action is to be taken, the rabble-rousers and the doers—many of them nonprofit environmental advocates—are going to need to kick it into high gear. –Mike Keefe-Feldman