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Earth hit with 12 straight months of record-breaking temperatures

The planet’s string of record-breaking temperatures has continued for a full year, with May marking the 12th consecutive month for which its average temperature set a new record for that month.

In total, the global average temperature for the last 12 months was the highest on record, at 1.63 C above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial average, according to new data from Copernicus, the European Union’s climate monitoring service.

“For the past year, every turn of the calendar has turned up the heat,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in prepared remarks released ahead of a Wednesday news conference in New York City, to coincide with the release of the findings.

Guterres called on world leaders and corporations to take “urgent action” over the next 18 months to slash greenhouse gas emissions, boost climate finance and “clamp down” on the fossil fuel industry, which he described as the “godfathers of climate chaos.” He urged countries to ban fossil fuel advertising as they did in the past for tobacco.

“Many in the fossil fuel industry have shamelessly greenwashed, even as they have sought to delay climate action — with lobbying, legal threats and massive ad campaigns,” he said.

“Our planet is trying to tell us something. But we don’t seem to be listening. We’re shattering global temperature records and reaping the whirlwind. It’s climate crunch time. Now is the time to mobilize, act and deliver.”

‘Shocking but not surprising’

Scientists have expressed alarm — and in some cases surprise — at the rate of warming over the past year.

Experts say El Niño, a cyclical and natural ocean variability in the Pacific Ocean, has contributed to the rise in temperatures.

A reduction in shipping pollution, which can radiate heat back out into space, may also be a contributing factor — though scientists continue to debate the extent of its role.

Projections show the world is likely to face even hotter temperatures in the next five years, with the burning of fossil fuels pumping more climate-warming carbon dioxide into the air. 

“It is shocking but not surprising that we have reached this 12-month streak,” Copernicus director Carlo Buontempo said in a statement.

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“While this sequence of record-breaking months will eventually be interrupted, the overall signature of climate change remains and there is no sign in sight of a change in such a trend.”

Another report released Wednesday by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found there is an 80 per cent chance the annual average global temperature will exceed 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels in at least one of the next five calendar years. (The 12 months that reached 1.63 C were between June 2023 and May.)

The global average temperature for each year between 2024 and 2028 is predicted to be between 1.1°C and 1.9°C higher than the 1850-1900 baseline, according to the report.

Ko Barrett, the WMO’s secretary-general, said the projections show we will be exceeding 1.5 C “on a temporary basis with increasing frequency.”

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries agreed to keep long-term global average surface temperature from rising 2 C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 C by the end of this century.

But temporary breaches “do not mean that the 1.5 C goal is permanently lost because this refers to long-term warming over decades,” Barrett said.

Scientists have warned that warming of more than 1.5 C risks unleashing far more severe climate change impacts, and that every fraction of a degree of warming matters. Some of those impacts are already being seen. 

In the past 12 months, people across the globe have been subjected to record-setting heat waves, droughts and storms made more likely by climate change.

Those include: a heat wave in India and Pakistan that exceeded 50 C, heavy rains that resulted in flooding in East Africa, a sudden deluge in the desert city of Dubai, the decimation of coral reefs and record-setting wildfires in Canada.

The changes underscore the need for improved climate adaptation, said Gordon McBean, a professor emeritus of geography at Western University in London, Ont.

“There’s a whole series of strategies we can do, but they all take effort and time,” said McBean, who was the lead author on a 2021 study outlining steps to better safeguard communities against climate threats such as flooding and heat waves.

Bill Merryfield, a research scientist with Canadian Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis, says climate warming was particularly acute in northern Canada.

The region experienced the largest temperature anomaly in 2023 of any land area in the world, at 3 C above the 1991-2020 average. More hot weather is expected in Canada this year, he said, with some variations over the next five years with the end of El Niño.

“It’s been known for a while that we would be reaching this point at some stage, where the effects of climate change are really unmistakable and quite severe,” he said.

“Seeing it actually unfold in some of the events like we had with the wildfires last summer and so forth, it’s quite extraordinary… and disturbing on a different level.”

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