Sea surface temperature anomaly (°C) for August 2023, relative to the 1991-2020 reference period. Data source: ERA5. Credit: Copernicus Climate Change Service/ECMWF.

WMO — The Earth Continues To Warm As Nations Ignore Climate Science

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World Meteorological Day, which is sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization, better known as WMO, is this Saturday, March 23, 2024. This weekend, climate scientists and government muckety-mucks from around the world will gather in Copenhagen to discuss ways of getting the nations of the world to achieve the nationally determined contributions they agreed to at the Paris climate accords in 2015. Sharpeyed readers will note those NDCs are optional and set by the nations themselves. And yet, the world community has been unable to get over even that impossibly low bar as they strengthen their embrace of fossil fuels.

Celeste Saulo, the Secretary General of WMO, said this week, “Climate Action is currently being hampered by a lack of capacity to deliver and use climate services to inform national mitigation and adaptation plans, especially in developing countries. We need to increase support for National Meteorological and Hydrological Services to be able to provide information services to ensure the next generation of Nationally Determined Contributions are based on science.”

The science she refers to is contained in the latest WMO report entitled State of the Global Climate 2023 published March 19, 2024. It says the science shows “that records were once again broken, and in some cases smashed, for greenhouse gas levels, surface temperatures, ocean heat and acidification, sea level rise, Antarctic sea ice cover and glacier retreat. Heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires, and rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones caused misery and mayhem, upending everyday life for millions and inflicting many billions of dollars in economic losses.”

The WMO report confirmed that 2023 was the warmest year on record, with the global average near-surface temperature at 1.45° Celsius (with a margin of uncertainty of ± 0.12° C) above the pre-industrial baseline. It was the warmest 10-year period on record.

“Never have we been so close — albeit on a temporary basis at the moment — to the 1.5° C lower limit of the Paris Agreement on climate change.” Saulo said. “The WMO community is sounding the Red Alert to the world. Climate change is about much more than temperatures. What we witnessed in 2023, especially with the unprecedented ocean warmth, glacier retreat and Antarctic sea ice loss, is cause for particular concern.”

On an average day in 2023, nearly one-third of the global ocean was gripped by a marine heatwave, harming vital ecosystems and food systems. Towards the end of 2023, over 90% of the ocean had experienced heatwave conditions at some point during the year.

The global set of reference glaciers suffered the largest loss of ice on record (since 1950), driven by extreme melt in both western North America and Europe, according to preliminary data. Antarctic sea ice extent was by far the lowest on record, with the maximum extent at the end of winter at 1 million km below the previous record year – equivalent to the size of France and Germany combined.

“The climate crisis is THE defining challenge that humanity faces and is closely intertwined with the inequality crisis – as witnessed by growing food insecurity and population displacement, and biodiversity loss,” Saulo said. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do a deep dive into the report, the graph below, created by WMO, really tells us all we need to know.

WMO graph

A NASA Scientist Weighs In

Gavin Schmidt is the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the NASA office once headed by James Hansen. Writing in Nature on March 19, 2024, he said that average global temperatures last year rose unexpectedly by 0.2º C and that climate scientists are at a loss to explain the anomaly.

For the past nine months, mean land and sea surface temperatures have overshot previous records each month by up to 0.2 °C — a huge margin at the planetary scale. A general warming trend is expected because of rising greenhouse gas emissions, but this sudden heat spike greatly exceeds predictions made by statistical climate models that rely on past observations. Many reasons for this discrepancy have been proposed but, as yet, no combination of them has been able to reconcile our theories with what has happened.

For a start, prevalent global climate conditions one year ago would have suggested that a spell of record setting warmth was unlikely. Early last year, the tropical Pacific Ocean was coming out of a three year period of La Niña, a climate phenomenon associated with the relative cooling of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. Drawing on precedents when similar conditions prevailed at the beginning of a year, several climate scientists, including me, put the odds of 2023 turning out to be a record warm year at just one in five.

El Niño — the inverse of La Niña — causes the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean to warm up. This weather pattern set in only in the second half of the year, and the current spell is milder than similar events in 1997–98 and 2015–16.

However, starting last March, sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean began to shoot up. By June, the extent of sea ice around Antarctica was by far the lowest on record. Compared with the average ice cover between 1981 and 2010, a patch of sea ice roughly the size of Alaska was missing. The observed temperature anomaly has not only been much larger than expected, but also started showing up several months before the onset of El Niño.

Various theories have been proposed — a volcanic eruption in Tonga, lower sulfur emissions from oceangoing ships, an increase in solar activity — but none can account for such a large increase, Schmidt says. At present, the data needed to understand global atmospheric changes is simply too difficult to collect and arrives too late to permit real time analysis.

“Better, more nimble data collection systems are clearly needed,” Schmidt says. “NASA’s PACE mission, which launched in February, is a step in the right direction. In a few months, the satellite should start providing a global assessment of the composition of various aerosol particles in the atmosphere. The data will be invaluable for reducing the substantial aerosol-related uncertainty in climate models.”

The spike in temperatures in 2023 was well outside expected results, he added. “In general, the 2023 temperature anomaly has come out of the blue, revealing an unprecedented knowledge gap perhaps for the first time since about 40 years ago when satellite data began offering modelers an unparalleled, real time view of Earth’s climate system.”

“If the anomaly does not stabilize by August — a reasonable expectation based on previous El Niño events — then the world will be in uncharted territory. It could imply that a warming planet is already fundamentally altering how the climate system operates, much sooner than scientists had anticipated. It could also mean that statistical inferences based on past events are less reliable than we thought, adding more uncertainty to seasonal predictions of droughts and rainfall patterns” (emphasis added).

Much of the world’s climate is driven by intricate, long-distance links — known as teleconnections — fueled by sea and atmospheric currents. If their behavior is in flux or markedly diverging from previous observations, we need to know about such changes in real time. We need answers for why 2023 turned out to be the warmest year in possibly the past 100,000 years. And we need them quickly.

Bill McKibben On The WMO Report

Long time climate activist Bill McKibben has some thoughts on the WMO report and the recent indications by fossil fuel interests that they intend to keep pumping poisons into the atmosphere.

“The fossil fuel industry — as Exxon CEO Darren Woods helpfully explained — is in an all out fight to derail anything green, because it won’t return “above average profits.” They have plenty of allies. Everyone noted Donald Trump threatening a “bloodbath” last week, but fewer noted the actual target of his wrath — electric vehicles. The Biden administration, after listening to the rhetoric at the Houston conference, backed EVs in a straightforward and earnest way today, announcing new rules that attempt to spur the rapid growth of a crucial climate fighting technology. But of course that produced the requisite reaction.”

McKibben noted that the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers has started what it says is a “seven figure” campaign of advertising, phone calls, and text messages against what it calls “Biden’s E.P.A. car ban” in the swing states Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Arizona, as well as in Ohio, Montana, and the Washington, DC market.

The November election is not about democracy vs. authoritarianism so much as it is about tackling the challenge of warming planet. It is about “whether Americans can imagine making a small change in the face of the gravest crisis our species has ever wandered into — replacing the gas tank in a car with a battery. It won’t solve the climate crisis, of course — nothing will solve it. But accelerating momentum towards green energy is the likeliest card we have to play in a world where people seem unwilling to moderate their demands for mobility, and indeed for consumption of any kind,” Bill McKibben said.

The Takeaway

McKibben is correct. Our leaders are nothing more than shills for fossil fuel companies. They are standing on the tracks, watching a speeding train get nearer and nearer and ignoring the peril. Which leads us to ask once again, why are the companies responsible for our rapidly deteriorating situation not subject to criminal penalties? Why are Darren Woods and Amin Nasser not being dragged in front of the International Court of Justice to answer for their climate crimes?

We know the answer, of course. Money. Unless and until we remove the profit motive for destroying the Earth in the search for profits, nothing will change — ever. Capitalism, it seems, is the greatest threat to humanity ever devised, greater than war, greater than religion, greater than the quest for world domination. We have the power to flip the script but will we? That is the question that will be answered on November 5 of this year. We may never get another chance to make a significant difference in the long term sustainability of our planet.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5489 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley