1.5 degree warming limit ‘deader than a doornail’

11 April 2024
Cormac Mills Ritchard
A man walks to a reservoir to collect water in a drought-stricken area of Bangladesh PHOTO: Muhammad Amdad Hossain/World Meteorological Organization

Last year was the hottest in recorded history. The State of the Global Climate 2023 report, released last month by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), found that the annual global mean surface temperature for the year was 1.45 degrees Celsius above the 1850-1900 average. This takes the planet a hair’s breadth from 1.5 degrees of warming—the 2015 Paris Agreement’s supposedly safe upper limit before potentially catastrophic, runaway warming kicks in.

In the foreword to the report, WMO Secretary-General Professor Celeste Saulo declared that the year “broke every single climate indicator”. The report charts atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide levels, as well as ocean heat content, global mean sea level and the coverage of marine heatwaves. All hit record highs. The only lines going down in the report’s legion of graphs are those tracking ocean pH levels (indicating record ocean acidification), and the extent of the cryosphere (the frozen parts of the earth, indicating record ice loss).

The report details the colossal toll these changes inflicted in 2023. Tropical cyclone Freddy, which formed off Australia’s north-west coast in February, was one of the longest-lived storms of its kind and potentially the most powerful. Freddy crossed the Indian Ocean from east to west, tore the roofs off Madagascar and, after making final landfall in Mozambique and Malawi, ultimately killed more than 1,000 people.

That disaster was just one among many. Flooding in the Greater Horn of Africa killed hundreds and displaced millions. Storm Daniel bombarded the eastern Mediterranean, inflicting the greatest toll in Libya, where at least 4,700 people were killed. Wildfires killed more than 100 in Hawaii, and New Zealand experienced the worst flooding in its history. Much of the world, too, was ravaged by droughts and heatwaves, the impact of which was—though harder to quantify—arguably the most devastating of all.

Concealed on every x-axis in the WMO’s charts is the responsibility of the global capitalist ruling class, whose crimes can reveal themselves only with the passage of time. Today, Joe Biden opens oil fields in Alaska, Anthony Albanese gas fields at Scarborough and Narendra Modi coal mines in Jharkhand. Tomorrow the air they seeded with ever-increasing quantities of greenhouse gases will bring new, and greater, disasters.

Their culpability is recorded by the Production Gap Report 2023—published by the Stockholm Environment Institute. It found that, collectively, global governments are planning to continue expanding fossil fuel production until at least 2050, by which time emissions will be 350 percent above the level consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, and 150 percent above what’s needed to limit it to 2 degrees.

2023 not only broke records—it broke record-breaking. The mean temperature was 0.16 degrees above the previous record set in 2016. This is a huge jump, which if repeated this year will take us to 1.61 degrees above the pre-industrial average.

Ocean heat is another example. On the average day last year, nearly a third of the world’s ocean was affected by a marine heatwave, with the daily average coverage of 32 percent eclipsing 2016’s previous record of 23 percent. It’s a similar story with Antarctic sea ice, which had a yearly maximum 1 million square kilometres below the previous record—a loss of ice almost twice the size of France and a drop below the previous record more than four times that seen in the past. Plot these figures on a graph and it’s clear 2023 was a breakthrough year for warming.

The trend has continued in 2024. The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) reports that this year’s January and February were the hottest on record. By its calculation, we have already passed 1.5 degrees. C3S found that the twelve-month average up to the end of January this year was 1.52 degrees. We can’t know yet exactly how this trend will continue. Natural climate variation is substantial. Phenomena such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, for instance, can vary ocean surface temperature by as much as 2 degrees from year to year. This is why the WMO measures climate change using a 30-year average.

The meaning of this unprecedented year of warming is still being debated. In an article published in Nature, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies Gavin Schmidt wrote, “No year has confounded climate scientists’ predictive capabilities more than 2023”. He observed that the discrepancy between expected and observed temperatures “remains about 0.2 degrees” after all factors are considered—an anomaly that “could imply that a warming planet is already fundamentally altering how the climate system operates”.

Whether or not a tipping point has been reached, an acceleration of warming is widely accepted. Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen has been arguing this for years. Between 1970 and 2023, the global average temperature increased at a rate of 0.19 degrees per decade, according to an analysis by Climate Brief. The latest CMIP6 models of climate change have the current rate of warming at 0.29 degrees per decade, 53 percent faster than the rate since 1970. Hansen and his colleagues have a similar projection, “estimating warming of around 0.32 degrees per decade”—an acceleration that corresponds to the WMO’s findings. Both are substantially faster than the 0.24 degrees per decade projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, released in 2023.

Hansen recently told the Independent that, based on his analysis, the 1.5 degrees target is “deader than a doornail” and 2 degrees is on its deathbed. Whether or not these thresholds are dead in a scientific sense, they are—as the Production Gap Report makes clear—politically little more than skeletons. World leaders show no sign of leading a break with the fossil fuel-dependent business as usual of capitalism today. Under these conditions, there’s little chance that even the grimmest of scientists’ projections will be averted.

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