Why the latest temperature check on climate change is still terrifying

/ Justine CalmaArt depicting a red thermometer above flames

The latest numbers are in for how much our planet is projected to heat up this century, and it’s got me sweating.

Look, I am not a numbers person. And if I didn’t write about climate change for a living, this latest report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) wouldn’t hit the same. It says that this century, global temperatures are on track to reach between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees Celsius above where they were prior to the Industrial Revolution. That statement’s a snooze, right? Well, here’s why I’m stress-eating Corn Pops while writing this.

It felt like 139.5 degrees Fahrenheit (59.7 degrees Celsius) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Saturday. That was the heat index, a measure of both heat and humidity that’s crucial because humidity curbs the body’s lifesaving ability to cool itself by sweating. The night before, a thousand people reportedly fainted from the heat during a Taylor Swift concert in the city, and one person died. Brazil’s wetlands are ablaze during this month’s monster spring heatwave.

This is the kind of thing that happens with just a little over 1 degree Celsius of global warming today. Now, imagine close to 3 degrees of warming. That’s the trajectory countries’ current policies lead us to, according to the UNEP analysis released today called the Emissions Gap Report.

A hopeful caveat is that the outlook was much worse about a decade ago before countries adopted the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement. The dire projection in 2014 was close to 4 degrees of warming this century.

So there’s been some progress. But not nearly enough to meet the goals of the Paris accord and stave off even more extreme events like what’s recently struck Brazil. The Paris agreement aims to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, preferably at 1.5 degrees above the preindustrial era.

Those targets could slip out of reach very soon, research is starting to show. With pollution levels rising, the world could breeze past that 1.5-degree threshold by as soon as 2029, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Climate Change. Preliminary data show that on Friday, average global temperatures briefly rose above 2 degrees Celsius for the first time in recorded history.

That was a brief, albeit terrifying, breach on Friday. The goal of the Paris accord is to prevent sustained average temperatures that high. But these dangerous side effects from burning fossil fuels are happening much faster than scientists initially expected.

Back in 2018, United Nations climate experts published a roadmap for meeting the goals of the Paris agreement that included reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. As countries make slow progress on that end, the window for success keeps shrinking. And yet, global greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow over the past year, the new UNEP report says. Another pivotal round of climate negotiations is scheduled to start on November 30th at the United Nations conference in Dubai. There, world leaders are expected to argue over a potential deal to phase out fossil fuels to stop climate change — never mind that the negotiations will be overseen by an oil exec appointed president of this year’s climate conference held in a top oil-producing country or that US President Joe Biden, head of the world’s biggest oil and gas producer, has reportedly decided not to attend.

United Nations Secretary-General Antònio Guterres, at least, is ever the optimist. “We know it is still possible to make the 1.5 degree limit a reality. It requires tearing out the poisoned root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. And it demands a just, equitable renewables transition,” Guterres said in a press release today.