Earth's second hottest year since records began

A July 2019 photo shows a boy playing in a fountain to cool off as temperatures approach 38 deg C in Kansas City, in the US. PHOTO: AP

GENEVA • Last year was the earth's second hottest since records began, and the world should brace itself for more extreme weather events such as the bush fires ravaging much of Australia, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) warned on Wednesday.

The United Nations agency combined several data sets, including two from Nasa and the British Met Office.

These showed that the average global temperature last year was 1.1 deg C above pre-industrial levels, creeping towards a globally agreed limit after which major changes to life on earth are expected.

"The year 2020 has started out where 2019 left off - with high-impact weather and climate-related events," said WMO chief Petteri Taalas, pointing in particular to the bush fires that have been raging in Australia for months.

"Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," he said.

Australia had its hottest, driest year ever - a precursor to the bush fires.

The fires, unprecedented in their duration and intensity, have claimed 28 lives and highlighted the type of disasters that scientists say the world will increasingly face due to global warming.

The fires have already destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 10 million ha of land - an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.

Scientists say climate change is likely to have contributed to severe weather last year such as the heatwave in Europe and the hurricane that killed at least 50 people when it barrelled through the Bahamas in September.

Governments agreed at the 2015 Paris Accord to cap fossil fuel emissions enough to limit global warming to 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels - after which global warming is expected to be so severe that it will all but wipe out the world's coral reefs and most Arctic sea ice.

However, the WMO has said previously that much greater temperature rises - of 3 deg C to 5 deg C - can be expected if nothing is done to stop the rise in harmful emissions, which hit a new record in 2018.

The United States - the world's top historic greenhouse gas emitter and leading oil and gas producer - began the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement last year.

US President Donald Trump has cast doubt on mainstream climate science.

On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, however, US scientists said it was clear from the data that greenhouse gas emissions were warming the planet.

"We end up with an attribution of these trends to human activity pretty much at the 100 per cent level... All of the trends are effectively anthropogenic (man-made) at this point," said climatologist Gavin Schmidt, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The hottest year on record was 2016, when recurring weather pattern El Nino pushed the average surface temperature to 1.2 deg C above pre-industrial levels, said the WMO.

"In the future, we easily can expect warmer El Ninos than the previous ones," said WMO scientist Omar Baddour. "We can raise a red flag now."

Conservationists said the UN agency's findings were to be expected. "This is not so much a record as a broken record," said professor of climate science Chris Rapley of University College London.

"The message repeats with grim regularity. Yet, the pace and scale of action to address climate change remains muted and far from the need."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2020, with the headline Earth's second hottest year since records began. Subscribe