‘It’s a scary time’ as world shatters temperature record

Temperatures may push even higher this year — when nearly half the world’s population will elect leaders whose policies will influence whether nations can pull the climate from the brink. The 2023 data means each of the last 10 years comprise the 10 warmest ever recorded.

The new record shattered the previous high in 2016 by 0.17 degrees Celsius, Copernicus found. Last year’s hottest day, July 6, saw the average recorded temperature planetwide hit 62.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or just over 17 degrees Celsius.

Election results from 2023 have not been encouraging for advocates of aggressive climate action: The Netherlands and Argentina — countries that helped spark the global drive to fight climate change more than two decades ago — recently elected right-wing populists with known anti-climate zeal just before the most recent climate negotiations kicked off Nov. 30 in Dubai.

And with the White House up for grabs in November and former President Donald Trump showing
strong support in several polls
, the climate policies that the U.S. has pursued under President Joe Biden could be in danger. Trump has vowed to tear down Biden’s green policies, calling them a “ridiculous Green New Deal crusade.”

“It’s a scary time in that there are candidates on ballots across the world who haven’t really understood the full scope of climate risks and opportunities for climate actions,” said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Brown University.

Across the Atlantic, European Union parliamentary elections set for June come as leaders in many countries are
facing a backlash from climate efforts
made in recent years. Leaders in coal-dependent India and Indonesia — who have drawn criticisms that their plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions are not aggressive enough — look poised to win reelection.

Some pro-fossil fuel governments, however, may be on thin ice: Elections in Mexico and South Africa could oust parties that have largely supported state-backed oil and coal producers,
according to recent polling
. The U.K. Labour Party has a projected edge over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government, which has walked back the nation’s net-zero goals and endorsed new offshore oil drilling.

“Am I concerned about the state of politics in the U.S. and globally? … Most certainly,” said Max Holmes, CEO of the Woods Hole, Mass.-based Woodwell Climate Research Center.

There’s been a lack of “political will” to pursue known solutions for solving climate change in many countries, he said, including boosting renewable energy deployment and reducing fossil fuel dependence.

Whoever prevails in this year’s elections will be charged with writing their nations’ 10-year strategies as laid out under the Paris climate pact for curbing climate pollution. The plans, due in 2025, are one of the last, best chances to try to speed the greenhouse gas cuts needed to keep global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius of warming since the pre-industrial era. The agreement set 1.5 degrees as a more ambitious target that nations should try to meet if possible.

“The extremes we have observed over the last few months provide a dramatic testimony of how far we now are from the climate in which our civilization developed,” Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said in a statement. “This has profound consequences for the Paris Agreement and all human endeavors.”

While breaching the 1.5-degree level for one or two years would not mean countries have failed to hold it — scientists generally put the longer-term temperature increase at about 1.2 degrees — last year offered a glimpse of what that world would look like.

The results were not pretty.

Flooding displaced millions from Vermont to Kenya. Phoenix — the fifth-largest city in the U.S. — experienced a record 31 consecutive days surpassing 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Canadian wildfires scorched a record 45.7 million acres, dropping asthma-inducing smog along portions of the Midwest and Northeast.

“On one hand, none of this is a surprise. But then on the other hand, we always seem surprised when we see the impacts,” Woodwell’s Holmes said of the new record. “The impacts are becoming clearer and clearer and they’re almost all negative.”

Despite climate impacts seeming worse than what scientists imagined 15 to 20 years ago, Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler said he didn’t expect climate change to register in a major way during what he called a “dumpster fire” of a U.S. election. Many people have adjusted their expectations to the new climate, discounting the risks that the new reality brings for health, safety and quality of life, he said.

“We don’t understand that our window of what is normal is sliding. So we don’t understand how abnormal things really are,” he said.

Scientists blamed much of last year’s temperature increase on the unrelenting rise in human-driven greenhouse gases, along with the powerful El Niño weather cycle, which warms surface temperatures when a southern and eastern shift of the Pacific jet stream weakens ocean winds. Other factors in what led to such a spike will require more study, such as the role of new shipping regulations limiting aerosol-producing fuels that reflect sunlight away from the Earth’s surface.

Last year’s jump has led some researchers to question whether the rate of climate change is accelerating. Most climate scientists said there is too little evidence to draw that conclusion, though they allowed for the possibility.

What is clearer, however, is that the effects of a warmer planet are growing more severe and will continue to do so as temperatures rise, said Alex Ruane, who directs the climate impacts group at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He noted that the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that extreme heat events that would have been likely to occur once every 50 years before the Industrial Revolution now occur 4.8 times in that period. If the world warms 1.5 degrees, those events will be happening 8.6 times every half-century, the analysis found — and with 4 degrees of warming, they’ll be occurring 39.2 times.

Faster warming also makes planning decisions for government officials and businesses more difficult, Ruane said. Assumptions about how infrastructure such as roads and bridges would perform under certain conditions would become outdated. Seed manufacturers that need between seven to 12 years to roll out climate-adapted varieties should instead be considering scenarios to account for changes 10 to 15 years out given how fast climate effects are manifesting, Ruane said.

“The climate system doesn’t care about politics,” Ruane said.

As the planet warms, the irreversible tipping points that would bake in cascading climate effects are becoming closer. Scientists may not know for years after the fact if a tipping point has been reached: There’s already much concern about the disappearance of swaths of the West Antarctic ice sheet, said Kate Marvel, senior climate scientist with the environmental nonprofit group Project Drawdown. Scientists say the collapse of that ice sheet would raise sea levels by more than a meter.

For some people who have experienced climate-driven disasters or extreme weather, those tipping points have already arrived.

“It depends on what tipping points and how do you define those,” said Claudia Tebaldi, an Earth scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “If you’re hit by an extreme event and you lose everything, that’s a tipping point for you.”