How 2023 shattered nearly every modern climate record

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A wildfire rages near Athens, Greece

Valerie GACHE / AFP

This year’s COP28 climate summit began with a stark reminder of what is at stake during the coming fortnight of climate negotiations in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. At the opening of the summit, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released their State of the Global Climate report, which found that 2023 shattered nearly every climate record in modern history.

“Greenhouse gas levels are record high. Global temperatures are record high. Sea level rise is record high. Antarctic sea ice is record low,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas in a press release. “It’s a deafening cacophony of broken records.”

Based on the first 10 months of the year, 2023 is slated to be the warmest since records began 174 years ago. Data to the end of October shows that the year was about 1.4°C warmer than the pre-industrial baseline, up from 1.15°C in 2022.

Melting glaciers and ice sheets have caused the pace of sea level rise to more than double in the past decade compared with 1993-2002. The maximum extent of Antarctic sea ice – a measurement of the region’s ice cover each September – was the lowest on record this year, at around 1 million square kilometres less than the previous record low in 1986.

The report is “more evidence of how drastically humans have altered our world”, says Andrew Pershing at US nonprofit Climate Central. “These numbers are shocking, but they are not surprising – they are exactly what climate scientists said would happen if we continued to burn fossil fuels.”

The planet also saw extreme damage and loss of life from catastrophic events, such as Mediterranean Cyclone Daniel and wildfires in Hawaii, Canada and Europe. “This year we have seen communities around the world pounded by fires, floods and searing temperatures. Record global heat should send shivers down the spines of world leaders,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres in a statement.

The report credits the warming El Niño climate pattern, which emerged during the northern hemisphere spring of 2023, as a factor in the record-breaking temperatures – another was the burning of fossil fuels. Levels of heat-trapping gasses such as carbon dioxide are now 50 per cent higher than before industrialisation, according to the WMO analysis. Because CO2 sticks around in the atmosphere for decades to centuries, experts predict temperatures will keep rising for years to come.

Pershing says this report makes clear that the leaders meeting in Dubai need to act now. “Let’s hope that the news coming out of [COP28] is about big steps that the world is taking to make the world safer for all of us,” he says.

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