The climate crisis is here and the world’s ecosystem has already started to cave in. This summer has been marred by all-time record temperature highs, destructive flash flooding that has washed entire villages away and some of the most powerful hurricanes and storms ever seen.
UN Secretary General António Guterres in the first week of September said: “Our planet has just endured a season of simmering – the hottest summer on record. Climate breakdown has begun.”
His comments come as the UN releases its global stocktake of climate action and finds the world coming up woefully short. The UN says there is only two years left to reduce emissions and stay within the 1.5C temperature increases that were the target for the Paris accords, but time has almost run out and if radical action is not taken now the target will be missed.
A similar report was released by the Lancet that also made for dire reading: only 11 developed countries have reduced emissions, none of them are on track to meet the Paris goals and if they continue at the same pace as now it will take more than 200 years to reach carbon-zero.
The signs that the ecosystem is starting to collapse were everywhere this summer.
Hurricane Lee, which is currently traversing the Atlantic, was pumped up by record warm sea waters into a category five hurricane which has the destructive power of a nuclear bomb. Lee is headed for the US coast and could make landfall at the end of the week, but wind sheer effects have reduced its power to a category three in recent days and the hurricane is expected to turn north in a few days and may miss the US landmass entirely.
Closer to home subtropical storm Daniel unleashed its fury upon Libya on September 10, leaving a trail of flooding and destruction in its wake. Subtropical storms are just short of hurricanes and are very rare in the Mediterranean. Daniel had already ripped through Turkey and Greece, before making landfall at Benghazi in Libya, and was expected to move on to Egypt later in the week.
In Europe this year has been hottest on record. September heat records are tumbling in north-west Europe. In June, July and August – the northern hemisphere summer – the global average temperature reached 16.77C, which was 0.66C above the 1991 to 2020 average. The new high is 0.29C above the previous record set in 2019 – a big jump in climate terms. The UK will likely hit >30°C for a total of seven consecutive days in September for the first time, and temperatures in the UK topped 40C last year for the first time ever. Northern Ireland also provisionally set a new monthly heat record.
The data from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) showed that in August the Paris club goal of preventing average temperature climb of 1.5C had already failed, when August temperatures were 1.5C warmer than the preindustrial average for 1850 to 1900. However, the 1.5C threshold will only be considered breached when this average is sustained for months or years.
The seas are also heating up, fuelling the growth of hurricanes with the destructive power of bombs. The C3S data showed that for every day in August, global average sea surface temperatures beat the previous record set in March 2016, which was also an El Niño year. North Atlantic Ocean temperatures reached a new record of 25.19C on 31 August. (chart) (map)
Soup-warm seas and burning hot land have created the conditions for devastating winds and evaporation has resulted in torrents of rain falling.
Flash floods tore through in Greece, with three years’ worth of rain being dumped in less than two days. Tonnes of water that had evaporated off the Mediterranean then poured on Greece after being blown over the cooler land.
The Thessaly Plains have been inundated. These are only flat part of Greece and account for some 40% of its territory, and are the country’s agricultural heartland. Scientists speculate that so much water has fallen that permanent lakes might form in the plain, but at the very least the country’s agricultural production for this year has been decimated.
Antarctica is likely warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world and faster than climate change models are predicting, with potentially far-reaching implications for global sea level rise, according to a scientific study, The Guardian reported on September 9.
Scientists analysed 78 Antarctic ice cores to recreate temperatures going back 1,000 years and found the warming across the continent was outside what could be expected from natural swings.
In West Antarctica, a region considered particularly vulnerable to warming with an ice sheet that could push global sea levels up by several metres if it collapsed, the study found warming was at twice the rate suggested by climate models. That could put the Maldives under water, but it will also have devastating consequences for much of the UK and Western Europe’s coastal cities too.
Climate scientists have long expected that polar regions would warm faster than the rest of the planet – a phenomenon known as polar amplification – and it's already not only apparent in the Arctic but Russia too.
Russia’s permafrost is melting and Russia’s frozen north is now warming at seven times the rate of the rest of the world. The end of the permafrost threatens to detonate a Siberian CO2 mega-bomb that will release gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere overnight that has been trapped in the ice since primordial times. No one is sure what will happen then, but it could lead to a step-up in temperatures by full degrees that will be a shock to the ecosystem.
The average temperature of the permafrost is currently minus 3C, and previously it was rising by 1C every decade, but now the forecast for the temperature to reach zero has been brought forward to as little as five years or sooner.
Crops failing, animals dying.
The speed of the change of the temperatures is destroying animal habitats faster than they can adapt, in what Elizabeth Kolbert described as the “sixth extinction.” The previous five mass extinction events were driven by natural disasters; this one is entirely mankind’s doing.
The rate of extinctions was already alarmingly high before this summer tipped the climate over the top.
In a headline-making 2015 study, Gerardo Ceballos, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and other researchers compared conservative estimates of the background and current rate of vertebrate extinctions (background refers to the natural rate before human activity) and still found the current rate exceeded the background by a large margin.
"What we've lost in 100 years would have been lost in 10,000 years in normal times," Ceballos said in an interview.
And now it is accelerating. Thousands of Emperor penguin chicks died in late 2022 after the usually stable sea ice supporting colonies in West Antarctica melted. The baby penguins didn’t have enough time to grow their waterproof feathers so when they fell in the sea they simply drowned.
Fish are also getting smaller as the seas get warmer and crops are starting to fail. India’s Burger King has taken tomatoes off their burgers after this year’s crop failed and the cost of tomatoes has become prohibitively expensive.
The world's largest sugar trader expects the coming season to see a deficit for the sixth consecutive year as unfavourable crop forecasts in India will reduce global stocks of the commodity. “The world will be as close to running out of sugar as it can be,” said Mauro Virgino, trading intelligence lead at Alvean, a trading house controlled by Brazilian producer Copersucar SA, in a recent interview.
Most seriously of all, rice yields across Southeast Asia have fallen, sending prices up across the board. A rapidly escalating rice crisis is unfolding in Asia that has put hundreds of millions of people at food security risk.
Afraid that this, the most basic of all commodities, will become unaffordable for some of the poorest people in the world, India, the world’s largest exporter of rice, has banned all exports of non-basmati rice in an administrative effort to keep domestic prices down. In an unprecedented weather phenomenon, India is currently poised to endure its driest August in more than a hundred years and China is also suffering from extreme heatwaves that have also hit its meagre domestic agriculture sector. India is reportedly in confidential talks with Russia for the biggest ever grain deal between the two countries, the supply of some 8-9mn tonnes of wheat worth $2bn as a backstop in case things get really bad.
The effects of India’s ban are already rippling out across Asia. Myanmar has recently followed India with a ban of its own, while other nations are importing large amounts of surplus rice from other countries in anticipation of problems later this year. Indonesia has just signed off on a rice import deal from Cambodia, its first imports in a decade, but Cambodia is only willing to send 100,000 tonnes – half of what Indonesia asked for.
The poor rice yields are going to get worse in the months ahead as due to the record-high sea water levels, this year’s El Niño effect is expected to be especially strong, and will cause rice yields to fall further. The food issue and soaring prices in Yangon in Myanmar has already become so bad that residents are turning to charity-run food banks for help as they are unable to feed themselves.
Africa is the most exposed to a strong El Niño weather effects expected in the second half of this year, which will cut crop yields, but the whole world will be affected.
Like other countries, Chinese agriculture has been battered by the storms and the heat. That’s a big problem for a country that has a fifth of the world’s population but only 9% of its arable land.
The unusually heavy rainfall, which local officials said was the worst disruption to the wheat harvest in a decade, underscored the risks that climate shocks pose to President Xi Jinping’s push for China to become more self-reliant in its food supply. In other Chinese regions, extreme heat has killed pigs and fish, and also stoked uncertainty about China’s rice crop and its production of key staples such as wheat, corn and soybeans.
Last summer, prices for pork, fruit and vegetables spiked in China, prompting the government to release pork from its strategic reserves to stabilise prices. Pigs, rabbits and fish have been dying from the searing temperatures, and wheat fields in central China have been flooded by the heaviest rainfall in a decade. In recent weeks, extreme heat has killed fish in rice paddies in southern China’s Guangxi Province and thousands of pigs at a farm in the eastern city of Nantong, according to local news reports.
According to the UN, it is not too late to act and reverse the damage. But action needs to be taken now. And it has to be determined and radical. The UN General Assembly is due to meet on September 21 and will hold a special climate crisis session with world leaders. Then in November, the COP28 summit will be held in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is the main global forum for tackling the climate crisis.
The UN global stocktake report is intended to lay out the issues for COP28 and set the agenda, but although it sets out the dangers and lack of progress in detail, the report offers little concrete in action plan recommendations. One of the few low-hanging fruits that would make a big difference would be to cut the trillions of dollars in direct and indirect energy subsides governments pay. However, the fact that COP28 is being hosted by one of the world’s bigger oil producers doesn’t seem like an appropriate setting for a conversation like that.