2012 was hottest year on record in US

2012 was the warmest year on record in the contiguous United States, according to federal data released Tuesday that’s fueling political calls for more aggressive steps to fight climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the average temperature in the lower 48 states last year was 55.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average, according to records that go back to 1895.

The 2012 average temperature beat the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree, NOAA reported.

The data arrives as proposals to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions or impose a carbon tax face grim political prospects in Congress. Green groups are urging the Obama administration to take tougher executive steps, such as creating first-time carbon emissions standards for existing coal-fired power plants.

President Obama has said repeatedly that he will focus on climate change during his second term, but has not offered a specific policy agenda.

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“The president has promised to make climate change a priority in his second term, but he needs to turn those words into action. The price tag for dealing with unchecked climate change makes the fiscal cliff look like a crack in the sidewalk,” said Angela Anderson, the director of the climate program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, after the data was released.

NOAA also reported that 2012’s turbulent weather made it the second-most “extreme” year on record in the agency’s “U.S. Climate Extremes Index.”

“The index, which evaluates extremes in temperature and precipitation, as well as landfalling tropical cyclones, was nearly twice the average value and second only to 1998,” NOAA said in a summary of the newly released data.

Last year saw 11 natural disasters that created at least $1 billion in losses, including droughts, heatwaves, major wildfires that scorched over 9 million acres, and hurricanes Sandy and Isaac, NOAA said.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of House committees that oversee energy policy, said the data shows that 2013 must be a “year of progress” on climate change.

“Our planet is warming, our oceans are rising, and our storms are strengthening. Congress can no longer afford to watch the devastation from an air conditioned perch,” Markey said. “We must make 2013 a year for climate action. Waiting around for the next superstorm to flood Boston’s Faneuil Hall or the Boston Garden is not an option.”

Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, co-authored the sweeping cap-and-trade bill that narrowly passed the House in 2009. Climate legislation collapsed in the Senate in 2010.

He's running for the Senate seat expected to open if, as expected, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is confirmed to be secretary of State.