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2023 was the hottest in 125,000 years. But it won’t be the last

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
January 11, 2024


Last year was humanity’s hottest in at least 125,000 years. However, with warming trends predicted, it may turn out to be merely an average year rather than an anomaly.

Last November, with the Cop28 UN climate summit commencing, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) affirmed what already seemed inevitable – that 2023 would be the hottest year in human history. It is noteworthy that similar declarations – whether for the hottest year, years or decade – are made just about every year around the time of the conference of parties.

Last May, the WMO also warned that it expected global temperatures to reach record levels in the next five years. This surge is attributed to heat-trapping greenhouse gases and a naturally occurring El Niño weather pattern.
For scientists at Nasa, the summer of 2023 marked Earth’s highest temperatures since global records began in 1880. The combined temperatures for June, July and August were 0.23 degrees Celsius higher than for any other summer recorded by the US space agency.

Last year, intense heatwaves affected many parts of the world, from the United States across South America, to countries in Europe and Asia, with devastating wildfires in Canada and Hawaii. Extreme weather was also seen in Italy, Greece and across central Europe, where severe rainfall caused floods.

The speed of global warming over the past 50 years has exceeded anything observed over the past 2,000 years, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Such concerning patterns suggest we are unlikely to look back on 2023 as the year that rising temperatures peaked. And conditions are projected to deteriorate.

In its most recent comprehensive assessment, the IPCC projects that greenhouse gas emissions have contributed 1-2 degrees to global warming since the pre-industrial era. In contrast, natural factors such as solar radiation and volcanic activity had a minimal impact, accounting for a change of only around 0.1 degrees.

The combined effect of human activity, such as the extensive use of fossil fuels, deforestation and industrial processes, along with natural climate phenomena, indicates that 2023 will not be the culmination of the Earth’s path towards rising temperatures. This underscores the urgent need to enhance global cooperation to combat climate change.

The repercussions of climate change are evident. July was the world’s hottest month by a wide margin, and extreme weather is bringing death, disease and displacement through heatwaves, severe floods and droughts, and wildfires.

Climate Central reported that some 1.9 billion people experienced a minimum of a five-day heatwave that was strongly influenced by carbon pollution, at some point in the 12-month period to October 31, 2023. The far-reaching consequences of human-induced warming have been palpable for hundreds of millions worldwide.

From unprecedented early-season wildfires in British Columbia in Canada forcing tens of thousands to evacuate, to widespread flooding across East Africa displacing millions, the effects of climate change were deeply felt.

People in regions of China, Japan, the southwestern US and South America endured prolonged periods of record-breaking heat and faced dire consequences such as loss of life, agriculture and property, as well as food insecurity and increased health risks.

The escalation in global temperatures shows no signs of abating. With a robust El Niño – which releases heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere – reaching its zenith, climate scientists warn that the pace of global warming could increase.

The prominence of climate change making headlines throughout 2023 is noteworthy, especially given the armed conflict happening around the world, including in Ukraine and Gaza. This underscores the growing recognition of the immediacy and significance of addressing climate change, even as the issue competes for attention and importance alongside other pressing global issues.

It is critical for humanity to work to preserve our glaciers and mitigate the effects of rising sea levels. While a return to temperatures of the 20th century is not feasible, immediate action is essential to minimise the threats posed by an increasingly inhospitable climate.

Hence, it is highly unlikely that 2023 will be the beginning of the end of global warming. Rather, the question is: when will humankind begin to reverse the self-defeating and destructive climate change path we have recklessly submitted ourselves to?

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