January 31, 2014

Chart of the Week: 63 years of global climate change


Many natural processes, from evolution to continental drift, happen so slowly that it took humans millennia to realize they were happening at all. By those standards, the global climate is changing quite rapidly — the average global temperature has risen about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. But people remain more focused on short-term weather events, which affect their lives immediately, than long-run climate trends.

But load more than six decades’ worth of temperature data into a 15-second visualization, as NASA has done with this short video, and the change becomes apparent. Reds and yellows show temperatures warmer than the mid-20th century baseline; light and dark blues indicate cooler than average temperatures.

NASA emphasized that, while “weather patterns always will cause fluctuations in average temperatures from year to year…the continued increases in greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere are driving a long-term rise in global temperatures. Each successive year will not necessarily be warmer than the year before, but with the current level of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists expect each successive decade to be warmer than the previous.”

In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in October, two-thirds (67%) of Americans agreed there was “solid evidence” that the Earth is getting warmer, and 44% said human activity such as burning fossil fuels is the main reason. About three-quarters (74%) of those who said there is solid evidence believe it’s possible to reduce the impact of climate change.

However, actually dealing with global warming is a low priority for Americans: In a separate Pew Research survey, just 29% of the public said it should be a top priority for Congress and the president this year. And in our spring 2013 global attitudes survey, the U.S. ranked 33rd out of 39 nations in terms of how many people said global climate change posed a major threat to their countries: 40% of Americans said it did, versus a median 54% across all countries in the survey.

Category: Chart of the Week

Topics: Energy and Environment

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.