The coming climate catastrophe

By Shahid Javed Burki
Published in Express Tribune on January 15, 2024

If more evidence was needed to point towards the coming climate catastrophe, it came with the release of the report by the Europe-based Copernicus Climate Change Service. Published on January 9, 2024, the report estimated that the Earth’s average temperature in 2023 was 1.48 degrees Celsius hotter than the preindustrial average. At the start of the industrial age, 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 that 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 for taking 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 focused on the 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 Doanld 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. According to him, the globe was not warming as a result of human action. However, President Joe Biden, Trump’s successor, has moved to take a number of actions to limit those activities that emit large doses of global warming gases. For instance, his administration is pushing the conversion of the country’s vehicle fleet to be electricity-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. Kerry’s main achievement was to bring Beijing on board for taking global action.

But as a newspaper analysis put it, we’re now living in the world where weather 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 William 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) wrote that the United States broke nearly 3,000 heat records in the month of July 2023 alone. The historically high temperatures 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. High temperatures were not confined to the United States. Jacobabad in the Pakistani province of Sindh also set a record. The city is now unlivable in the summer months.

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 at the urging of small island nations that feared that increase in the sea level 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 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 taking action because the future will not be like our past.”

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