In January, the World Meteorological Organization reported that the last eight years were confirmed to be the eight warmest on record. Considering the growing strength of hurricanes, massive expansion of wildfires, and general increase in extreme weather events, it may seem that things are already pretty bad. They are. But they’re about to get worse.
Because as the WMO looks at the next five years, they not only expect more record heat, but also more of the associated disasters. They also expect Earth to move past an important political and psychological milestone regarding the climate crisis.
There is a 66% likelihood that the annual average near-surface global temperature between 2023 and 2027 will be more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels for at least one year. There is a 98% likelihood that at least one of the next five years, and the five-year period as a whole, will be the warmest on record.
That 1.5°C was the target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. The goal was to stay permanently below that line. Now that barrier could be about to fall.
To be clear, the Earth has not yet warmed by 1.5°C. The actual change from the agreed-upon baseline—which was set at the averages from 1850-1900, the earliest period for which we have consistent, accurate, worldwide information, but when the planet had already been warmed by industrial activity—is currently around 1.1°C.
However, as each year grows warmer, the chances that any given year will exceed that 1.5°C mark become greater. Do that for an extended period, and the average will move above that line—and it’s unlikely to come down. Right now, there’s a two-thirds chance that one of the next five years will move above that line for the first time in the existence of the human species. Ten years ago, the chances were almost zero. Soon they will be almost certain.
We are already living in a warmer world than any experienced by our ancestors. It’s getting hotter.
Compounding the issue, and underscoring the certainty that the next few years will be hot, hotter, hottest is the return of the El Niño pattern of warm ocean surface temperatures. For the last three years, the oceans have been locked in a La Niña pattern, where warm waters are carried swiftly downward and the oceans, at the surface, are relatively cool. Now that pattern is undergoing a rapid reversal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced a 62% chance that the oceans will flip into an El Niño cycle by next month. The odds only increase over the summer.
That warm water at the ocean’s surface will result in warmer temperatures everywhere, and there is plenty of ocean heat to go around. A recent International Center for Climate and Environment Sciences paper shows that ocean heat content reached unprecedented levels in 2022. Their calculations suggest that the upper 2,000 meters of the world’s oceans picked up an additional “10 zettajoules” of energy in just one year. That’s equivalent to the entire world’s electrical generation for more than a century. Now, El Niño is bringing that heat to the surface, where it’s more easily transferred to the air.
It was already getting hotter
The oceans are overloaded with record levels of warmth
Because of El Niño, ocean heat is going to add to heat over land
This is the WMO’s statement concerning 2022.
“In 2022, we faced several dramatic weather disasters which claimed far too many lives and livelihoods and undermined health, food, energy and water security and infrastructure. Large areas of Pakistan were flooded, with major economic losses and human casualties. Record breaking heatwaves have been observed in China, Europe, North and South America. The long-lasting drought in the Horn of Africa threatens a humanitarian catastrophe.”
2022 was a year governed by La Niña, where the oceans were helping to bury some of the excess heat. But, 2023, and likely several years to follow, will not have that luxury. There will be disasters. There will be droughts, floods, wildfires, and economic disruptions like power plants being idled by low river levels, barge traffic halted, and livestock dying in masses from sheer heat. The climate crisis already significantly drives immigrant movements in the Americas and Europe. Those movements will increase, and as they do, they will contribute to increased political instability, not just in the nations people are forced to leave, but in the areas where they arrive. The effects of climate change and the associated disasters are a matter of local, national, and international security.
We need to be prepared for this.
When politicians—from local zoning boards to Congress—are talking about projects like infrastructure, transportation, and housing, it has to be done in the knowledge that things are going to be hotter, with all the consequences that knowledge brings. When President Biden is struggling to get past Republican rhetoric and find reasonable answers on immigration, it needs to be done with the knowledge that increasing heat and shifting weather patterns are going to put millions more people on the move. What happens when a coastal city like Miami has to be evacuated?
And certainly, when planning for energy production, there can be no compromise in taking every step to reduce the human-created pollution that is driving the world into a rapidly increasing cycle of change.
We also need to consider this when just planning budgets in general, because the economy—both of the United States and the world—is about to take a hit. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a preview of disrupted supply chains and their ripple effects.
For pro-pollution politicians, pointing out the cost of addressing climate change is old hat. However, a new report, published this week in Science, makes clear that the cost of not addressing this issue has already been almost unimaginable. The hot years associated with recent El Niño cycles have been staggeringly expensive, and it’s getting worse.
In any one of these El Niño years, the combination of decreased production and increased disasters amounts to something like a 2-3% downturn in the global economy. The two-year El Nino in 1982-83 meant a loss of $4.1 trillion. Another two-year cycle in 1997-98 cost $5.7 trillion. Now we’re heading into another such cycle, and there are no guarantees it will last only two years. Over the remainder of this century, the cost associated with these cycles is estimated to be $84 trillion. That’s about the same size as the entire global economy.
That’s what we are already paying for not taking the steps necessary to address the climate crisis. Addressing climate change now is being fiscally responsible for the future. That price will only increase along with rising temperatures. It’s not too late to move. It’s never too late to move. But the longer we wait, the more costly it becomes.
Jennifer Fernandez Ancona from Way to Win joins Markos and Kerry to talk about the new messaging the Democratic Party’s national candidates are employing going into 2024. Ancona was right about the messaging needed to win the midterms, and we think she’s right about 2024.