UN climate report warns “time is fast running out” to avert the worst impacts of climate change

By Jeff Berardelli
/ CBS News

The United Nations’ weather and climate agency is out with its annual State of the Climate report, and it says “the tell-tale physical signs of climate change” are everywhere. The report documents unprecedented heat waves, fires and floods over the past year, and warns that there is likely more to come.

In the report, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) cited the historic fires in Australia and the Amazon, record-shattering heat waves in Europe, and soaring levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In a statement released with the report, the leader of the United Nations calls climate change “the defining challenge of our time” and said “time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption.”

“We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, referring to the goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to no more than 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average. “This report outlines the latest science and illustrates the urgency for far-reaching climate action.”

In order to reach those targets the world would have to rein in our dependence on burning fossil fuels, which release heat-trapping greenhouse gases. However, carbon dioxide (CO2) levels once again hit a record in 2019 — nearly 40% higher now than before the Industrial Revolution and the highest levels in 3 million years.

UN State of the Global Climate in 2019

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More than 90% of the heat from these excess greenhouse gases is trapped in the oceans, and that has resulted in another record-breaking year for ocean heat content. Even though there was no El Nino, a climate pattern which allows ocean heat to escape into the atmosphere, 2019 still ended up being the globe’s second-warmest year on record. In fact, the five warmest years on record worldwide occurred over the most recent five years.

The impact on humans is growing, with climate variability and extreme weather “among the key drivers of the recent rise in global hunger,” the UN said in a press statement.

The report also highlighted the most consequential climate-change-driven events over the past year.

Historic fires

If there’s one thing most of the planet will remember about 2019, it’s the out-of-control fires. From Australia to the Amazon to California, devastating fires dominated news headlines for weeks.

As shown in the recent CBSN Originals documentary “Complicit: The Amazon Fires,” slash-and-burn techniques for deforestation are rapidly fracturing the vital rainforest. Scientists warn it may be only a few years before the ecosystem reaches a tipping point and transitions into a more open savanna, with vastly less ability to absorb greenhouse gases and buffer the Earth against climate change.

In Australia’s worst fire season on record, 46 million acres were burned, more than 1 billion animals died and the estimated price tag is in the tens of billions of dollars. A international study recently concluded that the Australian bushfires were made much more likely and more intense due to human-caused climate change.

Heat waves

The same mechanism that set the stage for the historic bushfire season in Australia also supercharged the heat wave which helped fuel those fires. A phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole, with cool waters near Australia and warm waters near east Africa, combined with a climate system spiked by human heating to cause a record-shattering heat wave in Australia. 

The WMO report notes that Australia experienced the entire country’s hottest day on record at 107 degrees Fahrenheit in December, with 2019 featuring the 7 hottest days on record for the nation. 

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