According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2015 was the hottest year on record since such data was first recorded 136 years ago. The previous record was set in 2014 – indicating that 2016 will be another record-breaking year.  Some of this can be attributed to El Niño, a cycle of warm water in the central Pacific that occurs approximately every 2-5 years. However, the real culprit is global climate change, driven by human activity.

Since 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by one full degree Centigrade (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Most of this increase has occurred since 1981, and 15 of the 16 hottest years on record have happened since the turn of the century.

Gavin Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says,

“2015 was remarkable even in the context of the ongoing El Niño…Last year’s temperatures had an assist from El Niño, but it is the cumulative effect of the long-term trend that has resulted in the record warming that we are seeing.”

Regions that have been feeling the brunt of warmer temperatures include the Eastern U.S., the Caribbean, Central and northern South America, and Western Europe. Analysis on global warming is based on data gathered at over 6,000 weather stations as well as sea-going scientific vessels and devices installed on buoys.

Non-binding agreements reached at the recent Paris climate talks may represent a start toward addressing the major cause of global warming. All things considered, however, it’s going to be an uphill battle, particularly given the power of fossil fuel industries over the world’s governments and their nations’ economies. NASA administrator Charles Bolden warns that

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation…Today’s announcement not only underscores how critical NASA’s Earth observation program is, it is a key data point that should make policy makers stand up and take notice – now is the time to act on climate.”

Whether or not world leaders are willing to rise above their own narrow economic self-interest to take the needed action remains to be seen.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.