With world closing in on its warmest 5 years, disasters highlight climate stakes

Climate change has not stopped for COVID-19. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are at record highs and continue to increase. Emissions are heading in the direction of pre-pandemic levels following a temporary decline caused by lockdowns and the economic slowdown.

The world is set to see its warmest five years on record and is not on track to meet agreed targets to keep the global temperature increase well below 2 C or at 1.5 C above preindustrial levels.

These are just some of the findings in this year’s United in Science 2020 report by the World Meteorological Organization, or WMO, which has just been released. The report presents the latest data and findings related to climate change.

This year alone has seen unprecedented fires and flooding, due largely to climate change.

Along the West Coast of the United States, wildfires have decimated millions of hectares, destroyed entire towns and left thousands homeless in the worst fires in living memory. It was a similar story in many parts of Australia earlier this year.

Wildfires that incinerated tundra along the Arctic Circle this summer have released a record 244 megatons of carbon dioxide-35 percent more than last year, which was also a record breaker, according to the scientific magazine Nature on Sept 11.

In Siberia, large swathes have seen a prolonged and remarkable heat wave during the first half of 2020, which would have been very unlikely without anthropogenic climate change.

In June, the Yangtze basin and its tributaries saw some of China’s worst floods in more than 20 years. Rivers in South Asia were inflated.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in a foreword to United in Science 2020, said: “This has been an unprecedented year for people and planet. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives worldwide. At the same time, the heating of our planet and climate disruption has continued apace.

“Never before has it been so clear that we need long-term, inclusive, clean transitions to tackle the climate crisis and achieve sustainable development. We must turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future.”

The United in Science 2020 report, the second in a series, is coordinated by the WMO, with input from the Global Carbon Project, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme, and the Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service.

Lives disrupted

“Greenhouse gas concentrations-which are already at their highest levels in three million years-have continued to rise,” said Petteri Taalas, the WMO’s secretary-general. “This report shows that while many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated.”

Arnagretta Hunter, a physician, cardiologist and a Human Futures Fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra, said the report gives a “remarkable perspective on the growing challenge of our warming world”.

“Climate change remains a central health challenge for the 21st century,” she said. “This report should inspire leaders around the world toward rapid decarbonization. Time is of the essence. It is past time for all policymakers to take this seriously.”

Tom Wigley, a climate change expert at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, said “the planet is still heading rapidly toward surpassing the warming targets prescribed in the Paris Agreement” on climate change.

Wigley said the report is clear that “all (mitigation) options need to be brought into play” but fails to mention the role of clean, reliable nuclear energy. And while efficiency of energy production is mentioned, the role of increased efficiency of energy usage is not.

Pep Canadell, research scientist at the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, and executive director of the Global Carbon Project, said the report’s findings are yet “another reminder that while we are busy finding ways out of the COVID-19 crisis and still analyzing what went wrong in the last fire season, climate change continues to build the foundation of what will be the biggest ever global crisis if we don’t do more to mitigate it, and quickly”.

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