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During his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama touted the country’s progress in reducing carbon pollution emissions but added that recent advances in fuel efficiency and renewable energy have not done enough to curb climate change.
"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," Obama said. "Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods – all are now more frequent and more intense."
In 2012, the country experienced severe weather threats including drought, a devastating Hurricane Sandy and severe thunderstorms. We decided to fact-check whether the 12 hottest years on record have all come since 1998.
The White House directed us to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which tracks global surface temperatures. The institute concluded that 2012 was the ninth-warmest year on record, with 2010 and 2005 being the all-time highs.
For the contiguous United States, 2012 was the country’s warmest year yet. It beat the previous record by one degree Fahrenheit. (Science nerds can read more about how these temperatures are calculated here and here.)
Reto Ruedy, a program manager at the Goddard Institute, told PolitiFact that the institute’s data produces the following ranking of hottest years. Items on the same line are statistically tied.
1-2: 2010, 2005
3-8: 2007, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2009
9-12: 2012, 2011, 2001, 2004
This analysis shows that 13 of the warmest years have occurred in the past 15 years. Alternately, one could say that 12 of the warmest years came in the last 13.
We see a few other issues to note.
• The NASA data set isn’t the only one available. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also analyzes global surface temperatures using its own methodology. The two measurements diverge somewhat -- NOAA considers 2012 the 10th-warmest year on record since records began in 1880, rather than the ninth.
However, NOAA’s data for land and ocean temperature anomalies shows that 14 of the past 15 years were the hottest on record.
• There are other ways one could measure "hottest years." Kevin Trenberth, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, agreed with the 13-of-15 calculation. But he added that the NASA and NOAA values refer to global mean surface temperature. "One could define ‘hottest’ in other ways, such as by how much Arctic sea ice there is," he said.
Obama said, "The 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15." Data from NASA shows 13 of the hottest years on record have come in the last 15, and by a different data set produced by NOAA, 14 of the hottest years on record have come in the last 15. Obama was actually over-cautious in his statement, so we rate his statement True.
Barack Obama, State of the Union address, Feb. 12, 2013
NASA, "GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP)," accessed Feb. 14, 2013
NOAA, "Global Surface Temperature Anomalies," accessed Feb. 14, 2013
NOAA, State of the Climate, accessed Feb. 14, 2013
NOAA, annual global temperature anomalies (land and ocean combined), accessed Feb. 14, 2013
NOAA/NASA briefing on 2012 global temperatures
White House 2013 State of the Union website
ABC News, "2012 was 9th warmest year on record, NASA says," Jan. 15, 2013
New York Times, "Not even close: 2012 was hottest year ever in U.S.," Jan. 9, 2013
NPR, "Chart Check: Did Obama's Graphics 'Enhance' His Big Speech?" Feb. 14, 2013
Email interview with Clark Stevens, White House spokesman, Feb. 13, 2013
Email interview with Rudy Roedy, program manager at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Feb. 13, 2013
Email interview with Katy Vincent, NOAA spokeswoman, Feb. 13, 2013
Email interview with Gywnne Taraska, Joseph Romm and Andrew Light of the Center for American Progress, Feb. 13, 2013
Email interview with Gordon Hamilton, associate research professor at the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute, Feb. 14, 2013
Email interview with Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Feb. 14, 2013
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