Scientists: 2015 on Pace to Be the Hottest Year in Recorded History

The world may be halfway to doomsday.

In this file photo taken on May 18, farmer Gino Celli checks salt from irrigation water that has dried on the land he farms near Stockton, California.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Svati Kirsten Narula, Quartz
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Svati Kirsten Narula, Quartz
Nov. 25, 2015, 1:06 p.m.

The World Met­eor­o­lo­gic­al Or­gan­iz­a­tion, a branch of the United Na­tions, has an­nounced that 2015 is firmly on pace to be the hot­test year on re­cord, cap­ping what would be the warmest five-year peri­od (2011-2015) on re­cord.

The find­ings, which are based on glob­al av­er­age sur­face tem­per­at­ures, “are con­sist­ent with es­tab­lished long-term warm­ing trends, the dom­in­ant cause of which is the emis­sion of an­thro­po­gen­ic green­house gases,” WMO sec­ret­ary-gen­er­al Michel Jar­raud said in a state­ment is­sued Wed­nes­day. The strong El Niño weath­er sys­tem this year has also had a warm­ing im­pact that’s ex­pec­ted to last in­to 2016, he ad­ded.

Glob­al sur­face tem­per­at­ures are mon­itored con­stantly by gov­ern­ment­al and non­gov­ern­ment­al met­eor­o­lo­gic­al agen­cies, on land and sea, and the key num­bers are his­tor­ic­al monthly and an­nu­al av­er­ages. Sci­ent­ists and poli­cy­makers refer to the “pre-in­dus­tri­al av­er­age,” usu­ally un­der­stood to mean the world’s av­er­age sur­face tem­per­at­ures between 1850 and 1899, to con­tex­tu­al­ize cur­rent av­er­ages. The day the world’s av­er­age sur­face tem­per­at­ure is cal­cu­lated at 2° Celsi­us above the pre-in­dus­tri­al av­er­age is sup­posedly the day the Earth is doomed.

It’s a some­what ar­bit­rary threshold that sci­ent­ists de­cided on a couple dec­ades ago: The world can warm up by about 2°C, we think, be­fore cli­mate change turns apo­ca­lyptic. But if that’s the case, then the world is halfway to dooms­day. “It is prob­able that the 1°C Celsi­us threshold will be crossed” this year, says Jar­raud.

Vox’s Brad Plumer ar­gued last year that it was de­lu­sion­al to think hu­man­ity could slow down glob­al warm­ing enough to pre­vent a 2°C av­er­age tem­per­at­ure rise:

By now, coun­tries have delayed ac­tion for so long that the ne­ces­sary emis­sions cuts will have to be ex­tremely sharp. In April 2014, the UN’s In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IP­CC) con­cluded that if we want to stay be­low the 2°C lim­it, glob­al green­house-gas emis­sions would have to de­cline between 1.3 per­cent and 3.1 per­cent each year, on av­er­age, between 2010 and 2050.

Glob­al green­house-gas emis­sions have not de­clined at that rate, though.

Poli­cy­makers can still act to cut green­house-gas emis­sions, and will be meet­ing in Par­is next month to de­cide just how to do so. But there’s noth­ing to be done about El Niño, a nat­ur­al weath­er pat­tern that is ex­pec­ted to make 2016 even warm­er than 2015. As Jar­raud says:

Whilst a strong El Niño event is cur­rently in pro­gress, the im­pact of El Niño (and La Niña) on glob­al an­nu­al mean tem­per­at­ures is typ­ic­ally strongest in the second cal­en­dar year of the event, and hence the year whose an­nu­al mean tem­per­at­ure is likely to be most strongly in­flu­enced by the cur­rent El Niño is 2016 rather than 2015.

UNICEF re­leased a re­port on Tues­day claim­ing that chil­dren will bear the brunt of fu­ture tem­per­at­ure rises and their as­so­ci­ated ef­fects. Ox­fam has pub­lished a new ana­lys­is on how ex­pens­ive cli­mate change will be for the world’s poorest coun­tries; it will cost de­vel­op­ing na­tions $790 bil­lion a year, min­im­um, to ad­apt to the con­sequences of rising sea levels, ex­treme storms, and ir­reg­u­lar tem­per­at­ures.

If the coun­tries hold­ing court at the up­com­ing cli­mate talks in Par­is make drastic pledges, however, and some­how man­age to pre­vent glob­al tem­per­at­ures from warm­ing 2°C above the pre-in­dus­tri­al av­er­age, then poor na­tions might be spared some ad­apt­a­tion costs and only have to ex­pend around $500 bil­lion per year.

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