The coming climate catastrophe

Each of the previous eight years was already among the eight warmest ever observed.

If more evidence was needed to point towards the coming climate catastrophe, it came with the release of the report by Copernicus Climate Change Service on January 9, 2024. Earth’s average temperature in 2023 was 1.48 degrees Celsius hotter than the preindustrial average, before humans began to warm the planet through the burning of fossil fuels, emission of greater quantities of methane gas and other polluting activities such as the reduction of the planet’s forest cover. The year 2023 shattered the global temperature record by almost two-tenths of a degree — the largest jump climate scientists have ever observed. Scientists predict that 2024 will be even hotter. By the end of January or February, the European agency warned, the planet’s 12-month average temperature is likely to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius, passing the goal adopted by the nations that met in Paris in 2015 to lay down a series of targets public policy should aim to achieve to save the planet from catastrophe from which it will be very hard to recover.

According to a review of the latest scientific evaluation by Scott Dance, Sarah Kaplan and Veronica Penney published by The Washington Post, the announcement of a temperature record comes as a little surprise for those who have witnessed the past 12 months of raging wildfires, deadly ocean heatwaves, cataclysmic flooding and worrisome Antarctic thaw. A scorching summer and unusually hot autumn temperature anomalies had all but guaranteed that 2023 would be a year for the history books. But the amount by which the record was broken shocked even climate experts. “I don’t think anybody was expecting anomalies as large as we have seen,” said Copernicus Director Carlo Buontempo. “It was on the edge of what was plausible.”

Each of the previous eight years was already among the eight warmest ever observed. A combination of climate worsening events ushered in an age of ‘global boiling’ in the words of United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The UN Secretary General has taken the lead to urge member nations to take actions that would be serious and enduring. Unless nations transform their economies and rapidly transition away from pursuing the activities that cause global warming, unraveling of global webs would occur and cause human-built systems to collapse.

The issue of global warming has risen to the top of the domestic political agenda in several countries, not just in the United States but even more so in Europe. Experts and those who wished to get the governments around the globe to take action to reduce the amount of carbon that was being thrown into the atmosphere used breaking of records especially those that set in the distant past as a way to motivate action. The most profound change has come in the way policymakers in the United States view climate change. When Donald Trump was president from 2017 to 2021, he termed anxiety about climate change as a ‘Chinese hoax’, pushed by Beijing to hurt growth in the American economy. However, President Joe Biden, his successor, has moved to take several actions to limit those activities that emit large doses of global warming gases. His administration is pushing the conversion of the country’s vehicle fleet to be electric driven. Biden has appointed John Kerry who as Secretary of State in the Obama administration had negotiated the 2015 Paris deal that accepted 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as the goal the world must not cross.

But as a newspaper analysis put it, we’re now living in a climate that is breaking records for breaking records. “News of the hottest June was quickly eclipsed by the declaration of Earth’s hottest day, a record that would be 16 times by the end of July, which is registered as Earth’s hottest month,” wrote Willam Booth in a story in The Washington Post. The previously normal is becoming normal. These events are not rare anymore. Ten years ago, “we were talking about climate change and the impacts as something that you would see in the future. I think everybody now sees it on their television screens or even just outside the window,” said Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London and the newly appointed chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) tallied that the United States broke nearly 3,000 heat records in the month of July 2023. The historic heights included 128 degrees registered in Death Vally, California — two degrees short of the highest reliably measured temperature on Earth — as well as a dangerous 31 straight days of above 110 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona. There is agreement among scientists that the worse is still to come. They say that in 20 or 30 years 2023 would not be remembered as a very hot year.

At the Paris 2015 meeting of the COP — Conference of the Parties — participating nations agreed to the goal of “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase beyond pre-industrial levels to 1.5 degrees Celsius”. Large nations went to Paris to work towards the goal of 2.0 degrees but the limit was lowered by the urging of small island nations that feared that increase in sea levels would drown them. At least one climate-science organisation, Berkely Earth, believes that the limit has already been crossed. Scientists are already speculating that the planet could set another record in 2024. Some also suggest that the latest increase in global temperatures is a sign that the rate of global climate change has accelerated and unless urgent measures are adopted around the globe, we are heading towards a catastrophe.

To quote Carlo Buontempo again, “Whether or not 2023 passes the 1.5-degree limit, the year has given us a glimpse of what 1.5 may look like.” He was referring to many climate-related crises around the globe. “As a society, we have to be better at dealing with the current crisis because the future will not be like our past.”

Global warming has also become a subject of several books that look at the phenomenon from many different angles. Two examples of this are the books by Eugene Linden, Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present and by Thane Gustafson, Klimat: Russian in the Age of Climate Change. Both try to explain why when climate science was making rapid strides, politicians were so slow to act. This was the case in both the Capitalist and the Communist worlds: in the United States and what was then the Soviet Union and is now Russia.

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