Before we get started, I’d really like to ask for your input. Climate change is so difficult to grapple with — and this week’s news feels particularly dire. So, please weigh in on what you’d like to hear more about, or less. I’m particularly struggling with the impulse to put a hopeful gloss on our climate predicament. I’ve got two kids and even though both are now young adults, I often wish they weren’t hearing what I think needs saying. Any feedback you have is welcome, and you can write to [email protected].
It’s a burning question for me at the moment — I don’t like bearing bad news, but this week was pretty unnerving and it’s not getting anywhere near the attention it deserves.
After a summer off the charts, the numbers are rolling in for September and they’re even worse. Much worse. September was roughly 1.8 C hotter than pre-industrial temperatures. It absolutely exploded past anything we’ve ever seen — the global leap in temperature of 0.5 degrees above any previous September is itself an astonishing record.
Scientists are running out of superlatives. “Surprising. Astounding. Staggering. Unnerving. Bewildering. Flabbergasting. Disquieting. Gobsmacking. Shocking. Mind-boggling.”
That was Ed Hawkins’ attempt to sum things up. If you don’t recognize Hawkins by name, you probably know his most famous creation — the climate stripes that have appeared everywhere from the Olympics in Brazil to the White Cliffs of Dover.
“No one has ever seen climate monitoring like this,” said Samantha Burgess from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service when the organization published its data. “We have broken records by an extraordinary amount.”
Others were even more expressive.
“September was, in my professional opinion as a climate scientist, absolutely gobsmackingly bananas,” said Zeke Hausfather, who laid out the data so we can see how clearly one of these lines (2023) is so not like the others.
The first global temperature data is in for the full month of September. This month was, in my professional opinion as a climate scientist – absolutely gobsmackingly bananas. JRA-55 beat the prior monthly record by over 0.5C, and was around 1.8C warmer than preindutrial levels. pic.twitter.com/mgg3rcR2xZ— Zeke Hausfather (@hausfath) October 3, 2023
And, if you find it easier to visualize in a bar chart, here’s Copernicus with all the Septembers since 1940 and September 2023 in a league of its own.
If some of this is news to you, you’re not alone. I have yet to run into any normal people who have any idea what’s been happening. The big media outlets haven’t entirely ignored the leap in temperatures in July and August or the surge in September, but you’ll have to scroll a good way down most new sites — past the latest Ozempic trials, Hockey Canada’s dressing room rules, the PM’s holiday tab, and on and on before running across an isolated report, if you find any at all.
My local radio news did touch on the situation for a few moments following the weather forecast. It felt like the world cracked open, brightened with a ray of sanity. Until the host pivoted “to something a bit lighter — some ‘fun facts’” (and suddenly, I was transported into a scene from Don’t Look Up).
If you’ve read this far, you probably know the even bigger issue isn’t about the surge itself but what these seemingly small temperature increments mean for people, other living beings, and what they indicate for the speed and trajectory we’re on.
“This is not a fancy weather statistic,” explained climate scientist Friederike Otto from Imperial College London. “It’s a death sentence for people and ecosystems. It destroys assets, infrastructure, harvest.”
No matter how far you scroll, you won’t find those impacts investigated or explained thoroughly at all. Without an energized and informed public, it’s no wonder the political class pays so little attention. As far as I know, only one parliamentarian has brought any attention to the sudden spike. (Easy guess: Elizabeth May.)
In some alternate timeline, world leaders are shocked by their briefings, mobilizing funds and science to figure out what’s going on and whether we need to mobilize the public behind new emergency measures. Because even the experts can’t really tell if we’re heading into a step-change in climate breakdown.
“I’m still struggling to comprehend how a single year can jump so much compared to previous years,” said Mika Rantanen, a climate researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute.
The most common explanation is that the cooling effect of an unusual three-year La Niña had masked the full greenhouse impacts of fossil fuel burning and now we’re switching to an El Niño. But that seems at best a partial explanation. For starters, an El Niño would really kick in during the northern winter months still to come.
And it’s not even clear how strong an El Niño is brewing. Australia is extremely vulnerable to El Niño drought during the southern summer and pays very close attention — its Bureau of Meteorology was unconvinced and only declared an El Niño underway on Sept. 19.
El Niño seems like part of the explanation, but it’s not much consolation for the longer term anyway since it doesn’t create heat, it simply moves heat around, between ocean and atmosphere.
Another candidate is the “Faustian bargain” that James Hansen has been warning about for years. Hansen argues the world has been successfully cutting pollution like sulphur aerosols from smokestacks and high-sulfate shipping fuels. It’s nasty stuff, and all living things are healthier without it. But that old-school-style air pollution was paradoxically shielding us from the full effects of our carbon pollution — hence, the “Faustian bargain.”
Hansen and co-authors have estimated aerosol reduction was going to double the rate of global warming over the coming 20 years. The size of that estimate is disputed by other climate scientists, but the underlying mechanism isn’t. Still, the timing doesn’t entirely jibe with the sudden surge — marine fuels got cleaner as of 2020 and the general improvement in aerosol pollution has been gradual.
But we’d be fools not to take Hansen seriously. It was his testimony to the U.S. Senate as a NASA scientist that launched the era of climate change as a public “issue” in 1988 and his predictions have been accurate. More recently, Hansen and colleagues have been warning that the rate of heating is accelerating and is being underestimated by consensus-based scientific assessments like the IPCC that aren’t looking clearly at an acceleration in Earth’s “energy imbalance” — the amount coming in from the sun versus the amount reflected away.
“We are headed into new climate territory, not seen in the past million years,” Hansen and co-authors wrote in July.
We could go on to look at other signs indicating new territory. Global sea ice is almost as anomalously low as temperatures are high, for example. But let’s pause here and allow me to ask you to weigh in. The whole point is for these newsletters to be useful to you. So let me know: Too much bummer? Too much hopium? Too long, too short? What would you like to hear more about, or less?
And, before we get into The Roundup, I’ll leave you with a personal commentary by climate journalist Barbara Moran since it really resonated: Many scientists don’t want to tell the truth about climate change. Here’s why.
“Something weird happened” after this year’s IPCC report, writes Moran.
“Most climate scientists (and journalists) didn’t change how they publicly spoke about 1.5 C. Scientists kept saying things like: ‘We need to act now to stay below 1.5’ or ‘it’s getting harder, but still technically possible…’
“I think that 1.5 C has moved from ‘ambitious goal’ to ‘magical thinking.’ And the scientists are telling themselves a story to stave off despair… This is paternalism. (Or maybe maternalism?) Scientists are telling us a story to protect us from despair…
“Climate scientists (and journalists) are underestimating people. If you treat people like children who can’t handle the truth, they will behave like children. Like teenagers, actually, wasting time like it’s in endless supply. Yes, there are plenty of people who prefer denial. But I bet just as many want the truth, painful as it is. We deserve a shot at rising to the occasion.”