2023 is the hottest year ever recorded, and while the impacts of climate change intensified, the world’s richest countries responded with a shrug
The word ‘permacrisis’, was voted the word of the year for 2022. It seemed about right, given the fact that people around the world seemed to be stumbling from one crisis to another, be it war, disease, climate impacts or economic devastation. Earlier this year, a variation of this word suddenly became very popular: polycrisis.
Polycrisis is a word that has been around for the past three or so decades, but to many, it seemed like the perfect encapsulation of 2023: a year when all the crises of the world seemed impossibly tangled up, where it was difficult to always make out where one crisis ended, and another began.
But hasn’t the world always been in one crisis or another? What was such a big deal about 2023? One of the key points underpinning this new popularity of the term was certainly the newness of all the awful things happening around the world. It was as if the received wisdom of the post-Cold War consensus of more growth, more capitalism, more of business-as-usual was suddenly not the panacea, but the problem.
And nowhere was this more keenly felt than in two very related subjects: climate change and the collapse of multilateralism.
The heat is on
We’ve been getting here slowly but surely since 2019, with nearly each year hotter than the one before, but in 2023, several worrying—and that’s putting it mildly—climate milestones were passed. For starters, it is the hottest year ever recorded, beating the record previously set in 2016. A mix of rising greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration in the atmosphere and the El Niño climate pattern has meant that six months of the year—from June to November—have been the hottest ever recorded.
Releasing these findings in early December, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) stated that since their data record began in 1940, no other year, including 2016, has been hotter.
In fact, while December continues to be above average in terms of heat, June to November’s global heat levels were alarmingly high, on the higher end of the computationally predicted heat range. And while this spike has certainly been aggravated by El Niño—in fact, it is to intensify in 2024, leading to concerns of even greater heat next year—scientists are trying to understand if the effects of climate change are already far greater than expected.
The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), laid out a very specific goal for the world, and this has been reinforced by subsequent refinements in climate science. And the goal is this: The world’s governments have to ensure that rising global temperatures stay under 2 degrees Celsius of warming over pre-industrial (1850-1900) levels. Since even that is too high for the health of the planet (and humans), the current aim is to restrict global heating to within 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. As it turns out, we touched both temperature thresholds this year.
Speaking to the New York Times earlier this week, Chris Smith, a climate scientist at the University of Leeds, said, “What we are looking for, really, is a bunch of corroborating evidence that all points in the same direction. Then we are looking for causality. And that will be really interesting.” We will know soon enough, but in 2023, the world passed certain global warming signposts that are very troubling.
November was 1.75 degrees Celsius hotter than the pre-industrial average, and the first two days of November were 2 degrees Celsius hotter. While climate models predicted that the world would touch, or even surpass the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold by the middle of this decade, it would seem that the world is heating up faster than we’d thought.
“2023 has now had six record breaking months and two record breaking seasons. The extraordinary global November temperatures, including two days warmer than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial, mean that 2023 is the warmest year in recorded history,” said Samantha Burgess, Deputy Director of C3S in a press statement. The agency has estimated that over third of days in 2023 were more than 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times. The average global surface temperature in November was nearly a degree higher that h 1991-2020 average for the month.
The impacts of global heating
Such extreme high temperatures would mean more climate disasters around the world, and that has indeed been the case in 2023. Just take India, the country most at risk from multiple climate-related impacts. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report, published in late November and titled India 2023: An Assessment Of Extreme Weather Events (January-September), states that the country experienced extreme weather for 86% of the days in the first nine months of the year. It also found that nearly 3,000 Indians died in 2023 due to extreme weather events.
The effects of heat extremes began all the way back in February, which was the warmest in 122 years. The mean temperature that month was 1.36 degree Celsius above the 1981-2010 average. Since then, it has been a litany of disasters, from a devastating humid heatwave in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in June, to floods and landslides in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab in August. Earlier this month, Tamil Nadu suffered the double whammy of devastation caused by cyclone Michaung, and then a catastrophic rainfall event in just 24 hours, between 17-18 December. The latter was dubbed a once-in-a-century event, but as the CSE report states, one of the key characteristics of the impacts of climate change is that such one-in-a-century events are occurring with greater frequency—every five to ten years.
It was similar story across the world. And all this when the world is 1.2 degree Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times. As the UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), noted in its Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report in March, the world has to cut emissions by nearly half by 2030 and bring this down to zero by 2050. Some of the top points made by the report is that it is very likely that the world will overshoot the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold of warming in this decade. However, with strong and focused climate action, this can be reversed. However, if immediate action isn’t taken to end our dependence on oil, coal and gas, the world is on track for global warming of 3.2 degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2100. At current levels of fossil fuel emissions, the 2 degree Celsius threshold could be breached as early as 2050.
According to a report published by the medical journal Lancet in November, heat-related deaths of people over the age of 65, increased by 85% in 2018-2022, compared to 2000-2004. The report goes on to state that a temperature rise of 2 degree Celsius by 2050, would result in heat-related deaths to increase by an unimaginable 370%.
And that is just one of the impacts. The cost of climate inaction on the environment, biodiversity, the planet’s snow and ice cover, or coral reefs and fisheries are already very well documented. The fact is that low lying island nations could disappear in a few decades as global sea levels continue to rise. The fact is that abnormally hot oceans are continuing to supercharge cyclones and hurricanes into devastating storms every year, 2023 being no different. What was needed in 2023 was a strong, multilateral push set definite timeframes on ditching the world’s energy dependence on oil, gas and coal. Which leads us to the other half of the polycrisis.
A failure of multilateralism
Just when it needs to be the exact opposite, the world’s governments have become extremely distrustful of each other. Over the past two years, especially triggered by Russia’s war with Ukraine, and the horrific tragedy of violence unfolding in Gaza, reaching a just and equitable consensus at the annual global climate change conferences (the COPs) is becoming progressively harder.
This was glaringly obvious at the recently-concluded COP28 in Dubai. A heavily politicised conference chaired by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the UAE’s biggest oil company Adnoc, this year’s conference has largely been seen as a failure. The only thing worth cheering was the fact this phrase in the final declaration, pledging to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero (emissions) by 2050 in keeping with the science.”
Given the fact that it took thirty years of COPs to even acknowledge the role played by fossil fuels in causing climate change, this could be taken as a win. But as scientists, civil society activists and representatives from Pacific island nation states have pointed out, this is setting the bar very low, and the COP28 text neither places any obligations on the oil and gas industry, nor does it mention the need to reach peak global emissions by 2025, which is something the IPCC was very clear about in its March report. The lead negotiator of Samoa, Anne Rasmussen had this to say, “We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step change in our actions and support.”
Indeed, the inclusion of support for “transitional fuels” like natural gas, and carbon capture and storage—an unproven technology that is being pushed by the oil and gas industry—seems just like business as usual. Adnoc itself will continue to invest $150 billion over the next seven years in oil and gas production. At least, the COP gave a major boost to the renewable energy (RE) industry by pledging to triple global RE capacity by 2030.
Elsewhere, the loss and damage fund was constituted in a historic first at the COP28. However, the fine print again disappointed, showing just how little rich countries, that have burnt the most fossil fuels, are interested in climate justice. Wealthy nations have pledged a mere $700 million in all to the fund, less than 0.2% of the funds needed to address losses being faced by poorer nations every year due to climate change. A separate pledge by wealthy nations, made 14 years ago, to raise $100 billion every year to help the Global South adapt to climate change and transition away from fossil fuels, stood broken.
And so, the climate crisis marches on, while the world’s response seems to be to take two steps backward for every step forward. We should expect better from 2024, because time is running out.