May 18, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Climate change benchmarks all set records last year, report finds

Global mean sea level
Data: AVISO+ Products; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

Key data released Wednesday underscores how swiftly human activities are reshaping the climate.

Why it matters: The “State of the Climate” report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is a stark reminder for policymakers and business leaders that if the world continues on its current course, climate impacts will escalate in severity and scope.

The big picture: The WMO report confirms the past seven years were the warmest such period on record.

  • 2021 was comparatively cool, at 1.11°C above the pre-industrial level, due to a La Niña event in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
  • Once that event ends, and an inevitable El Niño sets in, a new warmest year will be crowned.

Zoom in: Greenhouse gas concentrations reached a new high in 2021 and recently hit 420.23 ppm for the month of April 2022.

  • Temperatures will continue to increase as long as carbon dioxide levels continue to go up, with a leveling off taking place once emissions reach zero.
  • Ocean heat content hit a record high in 2021 — a telltale sign of a planet that is absorbing far more heat than it is releasing back into space. The vast majority of this extra heat goes into the oceans, with increasing temperatures in the upper 2,000 meters.
  • Marine species are on the move as the ocean warms, and warming waters are altering the ocean’s ability to function as a giant carbon sink. Ocean chemistry is also changing as more CO2 is taken in, making waters more acidic.

Threat level: Heat waves aren’t just a phenomenon felt on land, either, with marine heat waves observed on a global scale during 2021, wiping out some coral reefs and damaging others.

  • Global mean sea level reached a record high too, with seas swelling at a faster rate than in the 1990s, which scientists have attributed to the growing ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica.
  • The report highlights record ice mass loss among glaciers in Canada and the Pacific Northwest from extreme heat and wildfires last summer.

The bottom line: The report amounts to an annual climate report card, and the planet fails to earn a passing grade.

Yes, but: There are numerous solutions available to alter the planet’s trajectory if leaders act with urgency, as study after study has shown.

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