At COP21, which was held in Paris in 2015, countries agreed to ideally try and limit warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels, and no more than 2C above preindustrial levels, by the year 2100.
1.5C has been a rallying cry for climate activists ever since, and the phrase “One point five to stay alive” is a standard refrain/chant at climate events. Some people rightly argued that even 1.5C was dangerous territory for the climate, but it’s been the goal that people have worked towards since then.
There have been numerous warnings over the years that we are nowhere near meeting either the lower threshold of 1.5C or the upper threshold of 2C, instead heading towards warming of 3C by the end of the century.
The starkest of warnings came in a little talked about study in 2017, which estimated that there was only a 5% chance of staying below the upper threshold target of 2C. This is because we aren’t making the changes that are necessary to avoid climate chaos, and are instead pumping out emissions at record levels.
State of the climate in 2023
2023 was a hellish year. Monstrous heatwaves gripped the world. People were reaching for fictitious creatures to name these debilitating oven-like conditions, with one heatwave named Cerberus from Dante’s Inferno. Floods, droughts and wildfires added to the extreme year, with Canada suffering particularly badly from the latter (45.7m acres burned – which is twice the size of Portugal).
At least 11 countries hit a temperature of 50C or higher in 2023, including Algeria, China, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Mexico, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the USA. In the UK, 2023 was the second warmest year on record. Ask a climate scientist and they’ll tell you that 2023’s heat was ‘Gobsmackingly bananas’.
Marine heatwaves also gripped the world’s oceans. The EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (CCCS) says that, “Global average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) remained persistently and unusually high, reaching record levels for the time of year from April through December.” They explain that, “The unprecedented SSTs were associated with marine heatwaves around the globe, including in parts of the Mediterranean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and North Pacific, and much of the North Atlantic.”
However, the headline statistic for 2023 is even more disturbing. The CCCS say that in 2023 the world was “1.48C warmer than the 1850-1900 pre-industrial level.” This makes it the warmest year on record globally. For clarity, this relates to surface air temperature, which is what concerns us most.
CCCS goes on to astonishingly say that in 2023, “Close to 50% of days were more than 1.5C warmer then the 1850-1900 level, and two days in November were, for the first time, more than 2°C warmer.”
The fact that Paris aimed to limit the global rise in temperatures to 1.5C by 2100, and the fact that 2023 saw global temperatures rise to 1.48C above the pre-industrial level, should be making global headlines. Yes, 2023 saw the return of El Niño, which pushes up global temperatures. But even with the presence of El Niño, they shouldn’t have reached these crazy levels. Both the Paris targets were decimated in a twelve month period. This isn’t just a crisis, this is a climate emergency. Climate breakdown is accelerating at a rate that has left some climate scientists lost for words and filled with climate anxiety.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, emissions also had a record year – meaning that we’re still driving at speed in the wrong direction. In 2023 “global carbon emissions from fossil fuels reached record levels again”. Last year also saw the “biggest increases in global greenhouse gas emissions since 2015.”
What does this mean for the 1.5C target?
In 2023, we almost breached the 1.5C target for the year as a whole, which came in 1.48C warmer than pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, the forecast going forward isn’t looking good either. Dr James Hansen, who is regarded as one of the world’s leading climate scientists spoke to the Guardian and said that the 1.5C threshold will be “passed for all practical purposes” by May 2024. In fact, Hansen goes on to say that the twelve month period through to May 2024, will likely average at around 1.7C, as a result of both our emissions and the warming effects of the El Niño.
As we’ve breached 1.5C sooner than some scientists expected, some people are now saying that we can’t consider having breached 1.5C until a string of years have hit this level. This is the first time I’ve heard this, but I feel it’s important to acknowledge this moment for what it is. Even if one wants to go with that argument – it sadly doesn’t change much.
The Guardian article notes an observation from Hansen that even after this current El Niño abates, “the span of subsequent years will, taken together, still average at the 1.5C limit.” Thus, the world’s leading climate scientist believes that the next few years will average out at 1.5C, and this should meet the (new) requirement stipulated above by some scientists. To put it simply, whichever way you want to split it, we are living through the breach of 1.5C.
What will happen next? Hansen warns in the Guardian article that, “We will pass through the 2C (3.6F) world in the 2030s unless we take purposeful actions to affect the planet’s energy balance.” This is a massive claim and one I fear will also turn out to be correct.
One may remember that COP28 took place in Dubai last month. At the end of the summit, an agreement was reached. Part of the agreement emphasised, “the need for urgent action and support to keep the 1.5 °C goal within reach and to address the climate crisis in this critical decade.” I guess this shows just how out-of-touch politicians are with the science, or how little they care about our future. As Hansen has made clear, 1.5C is being breached as we speak. That COP28 – the 28th global attempt to get politicians to tackle the climate crisis, has arrived at a target which wasn’t feasible to start with, may lead a reasonable person to wonder what the hell the world’s governments are playing at.
In 2015, the Paris agreement agreed to:
- Lower limit: Ideally aim to limit temperature rises to 1.5C by 2100, based on pre-industrial levels
- Upper limit: Aim to limit temperature rises to no more than 2C by 2100, based on pre-industrial levels
- We hit 1.48C above pre-industrial levels
- Nearly half the year averaged above 1.5C
- A couple of days hit 2C above pre-industrial levels
- Emissions from human activities were at record levels
- By May 2024 (just four months away), we’ll breach the 1.5C threshold “for all practical purposes”, and will hit 1.7C for the subsequent 12 month period. Thus, we’re on track to breach the 1.5C target 76 years ahead of what governments agreed upon.
- We’ll breach the 2C target in the 2030s. Thus, we’re on track to breach the upper limit target more than 60 years ahead of what the world’s politicians agreed.
It tears me apart that people don’t understand what kind of future we’re entering – especially as my generation brings new life into the world. Mass migration due to heat extremes, and weather extremes will reshape our political and social landscape. Conflict will spark up. Diseases and pests will spread. A great number of people in all countries will die as a result of climate breakdown (western countries aren’t immune from this global emergency).
The future looks to be unstable at best, unliveable at worst. This isn’t just me speculating – Damian Carrington’s sub-headline in the Guardian states that scientists say, “Rapid reduction in fossil fuel burning urgently needed to preserve liveable conditions.” That doesn’t even take into account the other major looming AI crisis, which threatens to upend democracy and collapse the jobs market.
Our lives won’t be like that of our parents or grandparents. The future will be a fight for survival on a smouldering planet with raging climate extremes. Yes, the planet will ultimately survive, but it’s civilisation and all living beings that I worry about. And it’s that life which faces annihilation.
So we can either cave in to despair, and I admit it’s hard not to do this. Or we can use what little time is left to snatch a chance at a liveable future from the jaws of climate chaos. We know how to do this – by working together against any interest that seeks to hold our future to ransom. Whether that be the fossil fuel industry, or parts of the media, or whether its governments who play politics with our lives and those of future generations. We only have one chance to get this right. We’re trailing in the 88th minute of a 90 minute game, with no extra time. How we play the remainder of this match will determine our collective fate.
My new cli-fi children’s picture book, Nanook and the Melting Arctic is available from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US. My eco-fiction children’s picture book, Hedgey-A and the Honey Bees about how pesticides affect bees, is available on Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.