Global warming trend looks like it’s accelerating: action needed now get off fossil fuels, reverse warming course

April 23, 2016

When scientists talk about climate change, there’s one word they use time and time again: “non-linear”.

Most people think of global warming as an incremental thing. Alas, most people are wrong. The climate is a very complex system, and complex systems can change in non-linear ways.  We cannot count on the average global temperature rising steadily but slowly as we pump more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It may do that — but there may also be a sudden jump in the average global temperature that lands you in a world of hurt. That may be happening now.

“We are moving into uncharted territory with frightening speed,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, last November. He was referring to the fact that the warming is accelerating in an unprecedented way.

Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) gestures during the presentation of the five-year report on the climate from 2011-2015 at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in this November 25, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) gestures during the presentation of the five-year report on the climate from 2011-2015 at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in this November 25, 2015 file photo.  Our room to change course, without entering a very dangerous zone, is short.  We are past safe levels.  REUTERS/Denis Balibouse 

Whereas meterologists and TV weatherpeople were behind climate scientists in understanding and talking about climate change for some time, that is changing, and the WMO is speaking as clearly and with as much urgency as they can:  action is needed now, to return to safe temperature levels, that will not be melting glaciers and Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets.2014 was the hottest year ever, until 2015 beat it by a wide margin. 2016 may beat that record by an even wider margin. It was the hottest January ever and the average global temperature in February was a full fifth of a Celcius degree higher than January.  In comparison, the “average global temperature” is an average of all the temperatures over seas and land in both summer and winter hemispheres. It is normally very stable, changing no more than a few hundredths of a degree from year to year.  But March was not only hotter than February. It was hotter by an even wider margin than February was over January. Indeed, each of the past 11 months has beaten the highest previously recorded average temperature for that month.

Some people try to explain blame it on El Niño, a periodic rise in the ocean surface temperature in the eastern Pacific that moves the rainfall patterns around worldwide, causing droughts here and floods there. But El Niño is a local rise in temperature, it does not normally affect the average global temperature much.  As for the frightening acceleration in the warming in the past three months, that has no precedent in any El Niño year, or indeed in any previous year. It could be some random short-term fluctuation in average global temperature, but coming on top of the record warming of 2014 and 2015 it feels a lot more like part of a trend.

Could this be non-linear change, an abrupt and irreversible change in the climate? Yes. And if it is, how far will it go before it stabilizes again at some higher average global temperature? Nobody knows.

Last year, the average global temperature reached one full Celsius degree higher than the pre-industrial average. That is halfway to the plus-two degree level all the world’s governments have agreed we must never exceed. We got to plus-one slowly, over a period of two centuries.

The plus-two threshold matters because at that point the warming we already have caused (at 1 C now) will trigger natural feedbacks that we cannot control: the loss of the Arctic sea-ice, the melting of the permafrost, and immense releases of carbon dioxide from the warming oceans.  We can influence how fast this occurs though and we could stop emitting fossil fuels and turn the ship around.  After plus-two, we will no longer be able to stop the warming by ending our own greenhouse gas emissions.

Even at the global climate summit in Paris last December, participants hoped we might avoid triggering the feedbacks, and that the historic rate of warming would still give us about 25 years to work on cutting our emissions before we reach plus-two. But if the current non-linear surge in warming persists, we could reach plus 1.5 degrees by the end of this year.