Sustainable Energy

Earth’s Continued Warming Has Taken Us into Uncharted Territory

Record high temperatures, unprecedented sea-ice lows, and the highest carbon dioxide levels in four million years—but what happens next is up to us.

Mar 21, 2017
Nuisance high tides are even hitting Washington, D.C.

Climate change is pushing Earth into uncharted territory.

That’s according to a new analysis by the World Meteorological Organization, which points to “extreme and unusual” climate-related measurements and events from 2016 that are continuing into 2017. And the effects on the planet in the future will be large, varied, and often unexpected.

Last year provided no shortage of heart-in-the-mouth moments for climate scientists. Sea-ice levels hit record lows at both poles. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels surpassed the symbolic threshold of 400 parts per million, the highest level in four million years. Sea levels rose sharply. Warming oceans affected fish stocks and killed coral.

Indeed, the overall message of the WMO’s assessment is that even as the El Niño climate cycle now wanes, the world is warming and will continue to do so. The organization’s report explains that global average temperatures were 1.1 °C above preindustrial levels in 2016—0.06 °C above the previous record, set in 2015.

“Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system,” explained David Carlson, director of World Climate Research Programme, in a statement. “We are now in truly uncharted territory.”

In many ways, continued warming will bring more of the same, only worse. We can expect, of course, more sea-ice melt, causing further sea-level rises and more flooding. And we can anticipate global temperature rises, with more droughts and struggling crops.

But the upheaval will not be limited to physical phenomena: as we have pointed out before, there will also be complex social ramifications. Rising temperatures will increase social tensions and lead to more violence. They will warp our economic stability, reduce our productivity, and potentially lead to huge drops in gross domestic product. These effects will lead to rising inequality.

Then, as Carlson suggests, there’s the fact that we’ve never lived through warming like this before. So we’re likely to be unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with whatever happens.

There is, clearly, a lot to lose if climate change continues bearing down, and much to gain by responding quickly and aggressively. The U.S. government may have all but tapped out from the fight, but for the rest of world it’s time to get back into the ring—and be prepared for whatever gets thrown our way.

(Read more: World Meteorological Organization, “Trump’s Budget Would Mean Catastrophe for U.S. Climate Programs,” “The Paris Climate Pact Is in Effect,” “Hotter Days Will Drive Global Inequality”)