Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, the time when people start looking forward to a new year filled with promise and prosperity. But the mood is somber among climate scientists this year, where the consensus is that 2023 marked the end of the prelude to climate change and the beginning of the new reality of an overheated planet. The sense is that people are finally beginning to understand what is in store for them in a hotter world but that the realization has come too late to ward off its effects. The time for concerted action was in 2000, not 2024.
How Hot Was It?
Climate scientists are staying up late to check their data but it is inevitable that when the last graph is created and the last column of numbers is tabulated, 2023 will go down as the hottest year on Earth in 120,000 years. The Guardian reports the Japanese meteorological society says temperatures in 2023 were 0.53ºC above the global average between 1991 and 2020. That is far above the previous record set in 2016 when temperatures were 0.35C above that average. Over the longer term, the world is about 1.2C hotter than in pre-industrial times.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has calculated there was a “greater than 99% chance” that 2023 would be the hottest year in its 174 year dataset. This followed six record warm months in a row, including the northern hemisphere’s warmest summer and autumn.
Driven by human caused global heating and El Niño, the heat never let up as the end of the year approached. In November, two days were warmer than 2ºC above the pre-industrial average, according to Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. It too has already confirmed the annual record, as has the World Meteorological Organization. In December, many parts of the world sweltered through the hottest Christmas ever. Monthly temperature records are still being beaten in central Asia, South America, Europe and Australia as 2023 draws to a close.
Berkeley Earth has predicted that average temperatures in 2023 will almost certainly prove to have been 1.5C higher than pre-industrial levels. Although climate trends are based on data that spans decades rather than annual measurements, many scientists say it is probably only a matter of time before the world overshoots the most ambitious of the Paris agreement targets.
2023 Was A Year Of Climate Disasters
This year’s deadliest climate disaster was a flood in Libya that killed more than 11,300 people in the coastal city of Derna. In a single day, Storm Daniel unleashed 200 times as much rain as usually falls on the city in the entire month of September. Human-induced climate change made this up to 50 times more likely, climate scientists say. Forest fires burned a record amount of area in Canada and Europe. A roaring inferno on Maui became the deadliest wildfire in US history. The US broke the annual record of billion dollar disasters by August. There were already 23 of them before Labor Day this year.
Raul Cordero, a climate professor at the University of Groningen and the University of Santiago, said the effects of this year’s heat were being felt across South America in the form of unprecedented water stress in Uruguay, record breaking fires in Chile, the most severe drought in the Amazon basin in 50 years, prolonged power shortages in Ecuador caused by the lack of hydropower, and increased shipping costs along the Panama canal due to low water levels. He said El Niño was forecast to weaken in the coming year, but above average or record temperatures were likely to persist for at least the next three months.
Professor Johan Rockström, the joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told The Guardian, “The climate year 2023 is nothing but shocking, in terms of the strength of climate occurrences, from heatwaves, droughts, floods and fires, to rate of ice melt and temperature anomalies particularly in the ocean.” These events indicate the Earth is now in uncharted territory and under siege. “What we mean by this is that we may be seeing a shift in Earth’s response to 250 years of escalated human pressures to a situation of ‘payback’ where Earth starts sending invoices back to the thin layer on Earth where humans live, in the form of off the charts extremes.”
Rockström was among the authors of “Hothouse Earth,” a paper published in 2018 that warned cascading climate events such as melting ice, warming seas, and dying forests could tilt the planet into a state beyond which human efforts to reduce emissions will be increasingly futile. Today he says what disturbed him most in 2023 was the sharp increase in sea surface temperatures, which have been abrupt even for an El Niño year. “We do not understand why the ocean heat increase is so dramatic, and we do not know what the consequences are in the future. Are we seeing the first signs of a state shift? Or is it [a] freak outlier?”
In the Antarctic, scientists have also been perplexed and worried by the pace of change. The new Brazilian scientific module Criosfera 2, a solar and wind-powered laboratory that collects meteorological information, measured the lowest extent of sea ice in the region both for summer and winter. “This environmental alert is a sign of ongoing global environmental changes and poses a daunting challenge for polar scientists to explain,” said Francisco Eliseu Aquino, a professor of climatology and oceanography at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and the deputy director of Brazil’s polar and climatic center.
West Antarctica was affected by several winter heatwaves associated with the landfall of atmospheric rivers. In early July, a Chilean team on King George Island, at the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, registered an unprecedented event of rainfall in the middle of the austral winter when only snowfalls are expected. In January, a 1,500 square kilometer iceberg broke off from the Brunt ice shelf in the Weddell Sea. It was the third colossal calving in the same region in three years.
Aquino said human influence — caused by the burning of fossil fuels — has created “frightening” dynamics between the poles and the tropics. Cold wet fronts from the Antarctic have interacted with record heat and drought in the Amazon to create unprecedented storms in between. Floods in southern Brazil killed 51 people in early September and then returned with similarly devastating force in mid-November.
He added that these events are a taste of what was to come as the world encounters dangerous levels of warming. “From this year onward, we will understand concretely what it means to flirt with 1.5ºC in the global average temperature and new records for disasters.”
Climate Scientists Worry About A Lack Of Political Will
James Hansen testified before Congress about the coming climate crisis in 1988. But Congress brushed off the warning and continued to fiddle while the Earth burned. Recently Hansen told The Guardian that 2023 will be remembered as the year when failures became apparent. “When our children and grandchildren look back at the history of human made climate change, this year and next will be seen as the turning point at which the futility of governments in dealing with climate change was finally exposed,” he said.
“Not only did governments fail to stem global warming, the rate of global warming actually accelerated,” he said and warned the world was moving towards a “new climate frontier” with temperatures higher than at any point over the past million years. Hansen is now the director of the climate program at the Columbia University Earth Institute in New York. He said the best hope now was for a generational shift of leadership. “The bright side of this clear dichotomy is that young people may realize that they must take charge of their future. The turbulent status of today’s politics may provide opportunity,” he said.
His comments reflect the dismay many climate scientists feel at the gulf between scientific warnings and political action. It has taken almost 30 years for world leaders to acknowledge that fossil fuels are to blame for the climate crisis, yet the result of the COP 28 climate conference in Dubai was was what The Guardian calls “a limp and vague call for a ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels even as evidence mounts that the world is already overheating to the point where the ability of humans to survive is being threatened. As climate science has proven beyond any doubt, global temperatures will continue to rise as long as humanity continues to burn fossil fuels and forests.
Hansen is concerned that 2023, as hot as it was, will become the new norm and will be considered one of the cooler, more stable years by people in the future. He warns that unless there is radical and rapid change, failure will be built into the climate system.
And yet, the most popular candidate for president of the United States is a grotesque caricature of a man whose Christmas message was that all his detractors could “rot in hell.” He also promises, if elected, to put a stop to the policies of the current administration that are making massive investments in renewable energy and creating tens of thousands of new jobs in the process. The popularity of someone who would engage in such venomous attacks offers little hope that the US will continue to embrace effective climate action. If America fails to lead, that will give other nations reason to think they can shirk their obligations as well, sending the climate into an even faster downward spiral.
The solution is to elect leaders who will work to curtail the use of fossil fuels. Otherwise, there is little reason to believe that 2024 will bring anything other than more unnecessary misery on millions of people as our planet continues to warm. Perhaps the words of Carl Sagan could help us move forward with a vigorous plan to protect our precious planet.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
For all our conceits about being the center of the universe, we live on a routine planet of a humdrum star stuck away in an obscure corner of an unexceptional galaxy which is one of about 100 billion galaxies. That is the fundamental fact of the universe we inhabit, and it is very good for us to understand that. Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.
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