After 2015 was officially declared the hottest year on record, environmental experts say it's time to step up climate action efforts.
Global temperatures hit an unprecedented high in 2015, with temps shattering the previous record set in 2014 and reaching 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels for the first time in recorded history.
That's according to new research released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA.
"Weather and temperature data are facts. They're not opinions. And what the data is showing is that climate change is occurring," Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, said in response to the new figures. "And 2015 being the warmest year on record is a strong indicator that here in Chicago and the United States and globally, we need to step up and act smartly and accelerate climate change solutions."
Last year, the planet's average surface temperature was 58.62 degrees Fahrenheit (14.79 Celsius) -- an increase of 0.29 degrees Fahrenheit (0.16 degrees Celsius) compared to the previous record set in 2014, according to NOAA.
Antonia Herzog, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air Program, said she was surprised to see such a large year-over-year jump. According to her review, there has typically been an increase of about .1 degree Fahrenheit between record temperature years over the past few decades.
"There is some indication" that the planet is "very possibly entering a more accelerated warming period," she said.
In 2015, the Earth's average surface temperature was a record 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than levels from the late 19th Century, NASA and NOAA found.
According to the agencies, that is "a change largely driven by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere."
El Nino was also a factor behind 2015's record-breaking temperatures.
Last year, however, "was remarkable even in the context of the ongoing El Nino," Gavin Schmidt, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) director, said in a statement. "Last year's temperatures had an assist from El Nino, but it is the cumulative effect of the long-term trend that has resulted in the record warming that we are seeing."
Scientists predict 2016 will be another record warm year due in part to El Nino.
"It's not unprecedented to have two years in a row of record-breaking temperatures, but in our records, we've never had three years in a row," Schmidt added. "If 2016 turns out to be as warm as we anticipate, that would be unprecedented in our record book."
The new research comes on the heels of last month's Paris climate change summit, during which countries set a goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
"The fact that we're already at 1 (degree Celsius) is scary," Herzog said. "However, being scared, while it can be a motivator, we don't want to shut people down either. And so I think of it as a motivator ... We started with Paris. We started here in the U.S., but we need to do a lot more. And so we're sort of headed on the right path, but it's not the final path. We need to get to 80 percent or more reductions by 2050, and there's still a long way to go."
Implementing methane regulations is at least one climate action step that should be taken swiftly at the federal level, she said. Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
In August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled proposed methane regulations targeting new and modified oil and gas operations. The regulations, which have yet to be finalized, place a focus on reducing leaks of methane and do not cover existing sources of methane emissions.
"We need to finalize that standard. We also need to move forward and put in place a standard for existing sources of methane pollution coming from our oil and gas infrastructure," Herzog said.
Emily Rosenwasser, regional spokeswoman for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said her organization is looking for state action this year on the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill. The legislation is aimed at strengthening statewide standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The Sierra Club, Rosenwasser said, is calling on Gov. Bruce Rauner and state lawmakers to support strong clean energy policies, such as the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill, that will help Illinois comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. The federal regulations, which seek to slash carbon emissions from existing U.S. power plants, will remain in effect as they face a legal challenge from a group of states, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.
"We want to see the state listening to communities that have been on the front lines for a long time of not only power plant pollution, but also communities that are dealing with the impacts of climate change today," Rosenwasser added. "Only just a few weeks ago, Alton was completely flooded, and knowing our membership in that area, that was definitely a wakeup call and reinvigoration of the call to action that we're wanting all our state leaders to be proactive about embracing policies that help us mitigate climate change, like shifting away from fossil fuels and embracing clean energy."
For a number of years, climate scientists have warned that Illinois is on track to have sweltering summers that resemble those of Texas by the end of the century if climate change trends continue at their current pace.
In addition to more scorching summers and a rise in temperatures, extreme weather events like droughts, heat waves, severe storms and flooding are expected to become more commonplace in Illinois, experts say, if significant steps are not taken to address climate change.
Learner said Illinois and Chicago are "well positioned to step up and lead" on climate action. The Chicago area, for example, already includes 13 corporate headquarters of major wind companies, he noted.
"Investing in modern, new clean energy technology, like wind power and solar power, both creates jobs in our state and zero-fuel-cost energy sources," he said.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson