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A day to remember, not celebrate

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On 8 February 2024 it was announced that temperatures have been more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels for a whole year. Mark Lumsdon-Taylor explains why radical change is needed now.

19th Feb 2024
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What is the opposite of a celebration? It’s the day when the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service demonstrates that 2023 was the first year the threshold of 1.5ºC of global warming above pre-industrial levels, as established in the 2015 Paris Agreement, was exceeded* for the whole year.

If that is not shocking enough, the same reports show ocean temperatures have reached the highest on record and achieved that nefarious status at an alarmingly escalated rate. Even more worrying is that ocean temperatures do not usually peak for another month or so. 

The date, for posterity, is 8 February 2024 – coincidentally, also the day when the UK Labour Party decided to announce a U-turn on the policy of spending £28bn a year on its green investment plan.

Certainly not a day for celebration although, equally certainly, a day to be remembered.

Wrong direction

The world has not strictly broken the Paris Agreement threshold because that threshold encompasses several years but one thing is certain, it’s a step in the wrong direction.

Climate change apologists might point to the fact that 2023 was also an El Nino year when air and sea temperature increases are a natural occurrence, but the simple fact is that the phenomenon has never taken the planet past the 1.5ºC threshold before, at least not since climate records began.

Although 2016 is claimed by the United Nations as the year when more countries experienced violent conflict than at any point in the past 30 years, 2023/24 is beginning to feel remarkably similar, with several potential conflicts also germinating.

It is of little surprise that the EU has, based on a commission impact assessment and advice from the European Scientific Advisory Board on climate change, been aggressively demanding a 90% emissions reduction by 2040.

Placing that in context: in the three decades between 1990 and 2021, the EU27 cut emissions by 30%, according to the European Environment Agency. That means the new target needs to cut twice as much, in half the time.

Extremes and devastation

Increasingly news coverage of global warming-related events is peppered with references to climate tipping points, extreme impacts, the escalating weight of new climate records (none of which appear to be beneficial) and mention of global warming exceeding the 2ºC the Paris Agreement determined to keep well below if we are to avoid the extremes of weather and devastation likely at such levels.

Perhaps this is not surprising as the news is filled with reportage of wildfires (sometimes in places little troubled by them in the past), severe flooding (and other forms of extreme weather impacts) and devastating heatwaves.

Although science cannot necessarily connect every event to climate change, we are now at a point where the weight of evidence often favours it as a major factor.

According to The Week, some of the most notable weather and climate impacts in 2023 included temperatures in Afghanistan plunging to -28ºC which is well below average and resulted in the death of 78 people and 77,000 livestock.

In California, the ongoing floods wreaked havoc, with some 31 atmospheric river storms recorded in just a few months. Levees were breached and communities inundated.

Parts of Europe saw the second warmest winter, with low snowfall levels and the wide-reaching impact of a winter heat dome that covered much of the continent.

Cyclone Freddy made landfall in southern Africa in February before circling back in March, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake through Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar. More than half a million people were displaced and two million impacted by the storm.

Brazil reported 65 people killed by landslides in Sao Paulo triggered by torrential rainfall. Parts of south-eastern Brazil saw 680mm of rainfall in a single day.

In Malaysia, more than 40,000 people were forced to flee their homes due to extreme flooding that also claimed four lives. The traditional monsoon season usually occurs from November to March but this time, the rains lingered, and the floods continued.

Cyclone Mocha struck Myanmar leading to a United Nations call for aid to help 1.6m people affected by it. According to BBC News, 90% of the western Rakhine state’s capital city Sittwe was destroyed. Coastal winds reached 150mph and were accompanied by flooding and landslides.

Wildfires and floods

Canada suffered the worst wildfire season in recorded history in 2023. More than 5,000 blazes scorched through some 32m acres of land, almost seven times the period average.

Torrential rain and flooding in South Korea resulted in the deaths of at least 41 people.

Historic heat levels affected the US states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona with temperatures in the Arizona capital, Phoenix, topping 43ºC for 31 consecutive days.

A summer heatwave across Europe saw residents evacuated from the Greek island of Rhodes, which was placed into a six-month state of emergency after wildfires swept the island. Fires also burned across Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Croatia and France.

Typhoon Doksuri caused exceptional levels of rainfall in the Hai River basin in northern China (including Beijing, Hebei Province and Tianjin port), with the region experiencing the worst floods since 1963 despite massive mitigation efforts.

Flooding in Libya saw Derna practically flattened while heavy rainfall led to the collapse of two dams which caused extensive flash flooding and led to a death toll in excess of 11,000 people.

In the UK, the Met Office claimed 2023 as the second-warmest year on record, falling narrowly behind the record-breaking previous year. Eight of the year’s 12 months were warmer than average. It was the 11th wettest year since 1836 and 2023/4 has seen the most active start to the storm season since 2015. According to the National Trust, extreme heat, rain and drought created chaos for nature across Britain with pests thriving and the extreme growth of poisonous algae. The river Derwent in the Lake District dried out for the third consecutive June, while storms Babet and Ciaran caused serious flooding, affecting people, wildlife, landscapes, properties and coastlines.

A year to learn from

While 2023 is certainly not a year to celebrate for many reasons, not least that of planetary health, it is a year to learn from.

As governments continue to promote drilling for fossil fuels and extensive mining, and as investment in green technologies is sacrificed for short-term popularity, we will continue on the wrong long-term path for global sustainability. It is time for radical change before we become victims of radical climate change. 

*Due to anomalies in temperature recording in the 1980s, some interpretations place the global temperature at just below the 1.5ºC threshold