On November 17th, the planet crossed, albeit temporarily, a truly remarkable threshold. As a whole, the world temperature was 2°C over pre-industrial levels. This is purely symbolic, but as a symbol it is as potent as a Sword of Damocles hanging over a big red button that says "all the nukes." I'll say again that a single day's temperature doesn't matter all that much...
Except that we crossed 2°C after months and months of record-breaking heat. Earlier this summer we surpassed 1.5°C and I'll admit my little prepper cowboy boots may have shook. 2°C, in that context? Deeply, deeply worrying. So today let's unpack some of the details of this planetary fever. We'll talk about causes for concern and at least one reason why it might not be time to put on our pants-for-soiling.
A Manmade Illness
This planetary fever was caused and is being exacerbated by humanity–namely, the rich and powerful. And despite agreements made since 2015 to limit emissions, said rich and powerful are not doing nearly enough. According to the latest Emissions Gap Report released by the UN, we're still on track to increase emissions by 3% by 2030. It will require, for context, a staggering 42% decrease in emissions if we hope to limit warming to 1.5°C*. Remember, 1.5 is our hard stop; if we surpass it (which we're all but sure to (I mean basically we just plain will, and soon)) then we are almost certain to push over climatic tipping points which then cause runaway warming, and the apocalypse.
But the apocalypse is not some far away doom for only your children's children to worry about. It is not an all-at-once end. Much like our society is fraying and crumbling, we are beginning to lose a livable climate across much of the planet. With that slow-fade is our current world predicament: it suddenly got really, really hot this year. That is both a generalized less-exciting hot (it being 2°C above pre-industrial levels) and a more terrible around-the-world-in-80-heatwaves hot. With that come wildfires, droughts, melting ice, rising seas, floods, and more.
As worrying as that is, this isn't the end of our troubles. It's not even the end of our recent troubles. This is a spike in temperatures that's likely to abate, as it has been exacerbated in the short term by El Niño. The problem is that El Niño has not peaked–so our current spike in heat has likely not crested, either. So while we may look back on 2023 the way we used to look back on 2016, we first have to make it out of 2024.
*CO2 has a half-life of 120 years. Emissions absolutely need to decrease–they need to be all but halted–but what's in the atmosphere will keep warming the planet for more than a century.
Having covered El Niño, I'll try to keep this brief. It is expected that El Niño is going to continue to ramp up through winter and into early 2024 before tapering off and fading. Up until that point, a lot of thermal energy is going to be felt through the Pacific Ocean and that heat is entering a heat-crowded planet. This means, practically, that while we might get a mild winter out of the deal in the continental US, the rest of the world (and us soon enough) is bound to see a particularly bad year for weather. We'll probably see continued heat waves (see below), turned-up storms, flooding, and ecosystem-wrecking oceanic warming.
For example, while the US is seeing a mostly mild autumn, the Southern Hemisphere hasn't gotten much of a break from the heat. Having come off an unseasonable heatwave in countries like Argentina and Chile over their winter, the global South has gone straight into a very hot spring. In Brazil, you might have heard, it has been so hot that a Taylor Swift fan died at a recent concert. It's not just in the Southern Hemisphere, either, as parts of Europe, China, and East Asia more broadly has experienced some pretty outrageous temperatures (and some brutal cold snaps in between the heat).
But, and this is a big but, El Niño is an emanation of heat that already exists in the system. It's a cyclical expression of heat that's part of a system of moderate, cool, and hot oscillations. This means that the while the world suddenly feels a lot warmer, a lot of that heat was already here and is being naturally let off, so to speak. All of this is to say that while 2°C is mortifying, it is not the whole story.
With that El Niño caveat in mind, 2°C is still the cherry on the molten sundae of 2023, and we can imagine more sickly fruit is yet to fall in early 2024. In this context, the argument that El Niño is augmenting the heat to the point that it can be written off is, I think, limited. Instead it is emblematic of where we are and where we soon will be--as more El Niños will come, naturally, and none of this heat is actually leaving the system. Nor is any other mitigating factor soon to come as, indeed, the best thing we did for the planet lately is curb sulfur emissions which have unfortunately helped rocket absorbed solar energy to new highs.
So, really, what we are seeing right now is just a sneak peek of our near-future. And while we may get a break in mid-2024, it will not last long. Heat will increase generally for the foreseeable, and acutely when El Niño comes back around, as it does every few years. It's hard to pin down where exactly we'll be with all these variables, in no small part because we continue to blow past the goalposts when it comes to the pace with which climate change hits. Part of this can be chalked up to the experts being, to some extent, bought entities, meant to feed people a palatable version of our future–one that can be spent out of, innovated through. But it can't. To prove that, it almost seems, the Center for Biological Diversity released a report that states all the cuts made by Biden's Inflation Reduction Act are negated by the oil projects he's greenlit.
The other part is that the science isn't quite good enough, and we're simply more fucked than we anticipated. Six of one and half dozen of the other doesn't particularly matter. We're in trouble, and more than most folks are letting on.
We're now in the middle of a "pause" in the massacre of Palestinians while forces exchange hostages and prisoners. And while a pause is certainly better than the ongoing bombing of Palestinians, it is not a ceasefire, and the rhetoric coming out of the Israeli military is that they will conduct any further talks about further pauses while in active conflict. Keep up the pressure–contact your representatives, show up in the streets, and donate to relief funds, as relief finally is arriving in Gaza. Just because bombs aren't currently falling doesn't mean the genocide is over–conditions continue to worsen as the weather turns and the lack of access to fresh water has begun the spread of disease. We can't relax now that the world is finally watching.
Last bit of news: I'm going to start the annual When/If holiday break after this letter. Provided nothing huge happens (god I hope nothing huge happens), we will get back to work in the New Year.