Too little, too late
Capitalism is frying the planet. This year will almost certainly be the hottest on record and next year might possibly be even worse, writes Eddie Ford
After record-breaking spring and summer temperatures around the world, it is not too surprising that climate scientists last week said with “near certainty” that 2023 will be the hottest year ever since modern records began about 150 years ago - surpassing the record set in 2016 by 0.1°C. This was confirmed by those working for the European Union-funded Copernicus Climate Change Service, using billions of measurements from satellites, ships, aircraft and weather stations around the world.
Thanks to “exceptional temperature anomalies”, they found that the year so far is currently 1.43°C above the preindustrial average and last month was the warmest October ever globally - the month as a whole being 1.7°C warmer than an estimate of the October average for 1850-1900. This is on top of the fact that July was the hottest month ever and July 6 was the hottest day ever recorded, when the average temperature for the entire planet was no less than 17.23°C (obviously a worldwide mean, not the highest temperature in any one place).
Copernicus also found that October marked the sixth consecutive month that Antarctic sea ice was at record lows for the time of year at 11% below average; sea surface temperatures hit an average of 20.79°C, the highest on record for October, and Europe saw above-average rainfall - notably in Storm Babet, which hit northern Europe, and Storm Aline, which impacted on Portugal and Spain, bringing heavy downpours and flooding. It was also wetter than average in several other global regions, and these conditions were often linked to powerful cyclones, which triggered heavy rainfall and caused substantial damage. In addition, it was drier than average in the US south and parts of Mexico, leading to severe drought, along with central and easternmost Asia, and Australia.
As for the UK, it had slightly higher than usual average temperatures in October, with southern England seeing between 1.5°C and 2°C above the 1991-2020 average - after experiencing this year its eighth warmest summer since 1884, with June the hottest month ever recorded. So far, the record for the hottest day ever still stands at 40.3°C - set last year on July 19 at Coningsby in Lincolnshire - but for how long? Because the atmosphere holds 7% more water with every degree of warming, you can confidently say that UK will become warmer and wetter because of climate change (leaving aside for now speculation about the collapse of the Gulf Stream, which would have the opposite effect1).
In the words of one climate scientist at Edinburgh university, “Laid out so starkly, the 2023 numbers on air temperatures, sea temperatures, sea ice and the rest look like something out of a Hollywood movie”. So, if the current global efforts to tackle climate change were a film, it “would be called Hot mess”.
Yes, it is true that the entirely natural El Niño phenomenon is partially responsible for 2023 looking like it will obliterate all global records. However, with the El Niño phase, with its warm ocean water likely to continue into next April, the global average temperature will almost definitely remain at a record high over the next couple of months - bearing in mind that the El Niño effect is actually lower than those reached at this time of year during the development of the historically strong 1997 and 2015 events. But, given that the El Niño effects typically play out the year after it forms, it is quite possible that 2024 will turn out to be even hotter.
Perhaps even more sobering - at least according to a recent study from Stanford University - if we turn to geological records, then it seems that our planet is warmer than it has been since two interglacial time periods - one about 120,000 years ago and another around two million years ago. This is all before we take into account the calamitous role played by carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants over the last 150 years or so.2 Therefore, it is hard not to wonder what is in store for humanity for the next few years and beyond - yet more unwanted records?
Maybe we already have some understanding, or intimation, of what the future might bring, thanks to another analysis of climate data released by WaterAid and Cardiff and Bristol universities. This shows that under extreme climate pressures, which are increasing, areas that used to experience frequent droughts are now more prone to frequent flooding, while other regions historically prone to flooding now endure more frequent droughts. They call this the “whiplash effect”, in which extreme drought in one country mirrors the climate of another country. Hence, for example, the Shabelle region of Ethiopia - a major water source for Somalia - which between 1980 and 2000 experienced numerous periods of flooding, is exhibiting a shift towards prolonged and severe drought, recently experiencing the worst of the drought conditions in the Horn of Africa. This is something mirrored in northern Italy, the research finding that the number of intense dry spells has more than doubled since 2000. But, as part of what researchers describe as a “climate hazard flip”, the droughts in both regions are punctuated by extreme rainfall, causing devastating flooding, which was experienced in the Lombardy region of Italy this summer.
The research examined the frequency and magnitude of flooding and drought hazards over the past 41 years in locations across six countries: Pakistan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mozambique - with Italy being included to provide a European comparison. Needless to say, the flip of climate extremes is being experienced by millions of people living in some of the poorest areas of the world, where communities - putting it mildly - are often ill-equipped to deal with them.
All in all, the latest research from Copernicus and others is an ominous milestone for the Cop28 UN summit later this month in Expo City, Dubai - where they will be reviewing the progress they have made (or not) in fulfilling their pledges in the 2015 Paris Accords to limit global warming to ideally under 1.5°C above preindustrial levels (or at least 2.0°C).
Of course, there could not be a more suitable venue for the conference than the petro-state of the United Arab Emirates - just as the world’s fossil fuel producers are planning insane expansions that would blow the planet’s carbon budget twice over, totally contradicting their climate policies and pledges. Then again, who ever believed them in the first place? Instead of dramatically cutting down on emissions, the world’s biggest fossil fuel businesses are planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects and each country is trying to maximise their own production. The plans would lead to 460% more coal production, 83% more gas, and 29% more oil in 2030 than it was possible to burn if the global temperature rise was to be kept to the internationally agreed 1.5°C (the plans would also produce 69% more fossil fuels than is compatible with the alternative 2.0°C target). Petrostates and companies intend to keep on making trillions of dollars a year by increasing production, proving that under capitalism an addiction to fossil fuels is almost impossible to shake off.
If the 1.5°C target is achievable, what we should be seeing now is a more or less 45-degree-angle drop in the consumption of fossil fuels. But, as we have just seen above, that is simply not happening - in 2023, more fossil fuels will be consumed compared to the previous year, with the prospects for future years looking just as grim. Even in the most wildly optimistic scenario for the years ahead, the graph will be flat - spelling deep trouble for the planet and everything that lives on it.
Yet the precise problem lies in the idea promulgated by the Rishi Sunak government (and undoubtedly the potential Sir Keir Starmer government too) that come 2030 we will start cutting emissions. Then things will get done! But by then, it will be too late. The oil tanker analogy is a good one. They cannot be turned around on a sixpence. The more fossil fuels you use up with North Sea oil concessions and excuse with anti-Ulez propaganda - the more you keep going on about keeping prices down by burning oil, gas and coal - the more you actually add to the momentum of global warming. Even if the now impossible target of zero net emissions was met by some miracle today, you would still have global warming for at least the next 100 years. The ice caps will still keep melting, sea levels will still keep rising and, as a result of that, air temperatures will still keep rising - nothing can stop that, as it is a literal force of nature. Meaning more extreme weather - more drought, floods, fire storms … and abandoned cities.
The low-lying island nation of Tuvalu in the Pacific might provide the perfect metaphor for the climate crisis. Obviously expecting the islands to be submerged, Australia has generously declared that it would offer up to 280 people from Tuvalu access to residency, work and study rights each year as part of a new treaty - the island having a population of about 11,000 and a land area of 10 square miles. In response, the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network’s regional coordinator, Lavetanalagi Seru, described the Australia-Tuvalu pact as “a mere Band-Aid solution that in no way adequately addresses the fossil-fuelled climate crisis” - Australia being one of the great producers of fossil fuels, of course, and hence partly response for the island’s predicament in the first place.
Tragically, the effective abandoning of the 1.5°C target is a matter of life and death for many people - whether in the Pacific region or elsewhere.