The state of the climate in 2022

It’s time to pay attention. It’s time for all of us, from top dogs down through the ranks to the rest of us, to lift our eyes from what we’re doing and take a look at the real world. Because whatever we were doing, this is more consequential.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reads the tealeaves and at intervals reveals our prospects. Another UN agency, the World Meteorological Organisation, reports annually on what has already happened. The news always seems bad in these State of the Climate reports, but what really catches the eye in the 2022 report is the rising rate of change. Here’s a snapshot.

First, the root cause, greenhouse emissions. Whatever leaders might want us to think, the plain fact is that concentrations of all the main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – are continuing to rise steadily, or in the case of methane very quickly.

Heating of oceans, which absorb around 90 per cent of Earth’s greenhouse energy, reached a new record high in 2022, and record-breaking heatwaves in China and Europe caused many thousands of excess deaths, including over 15,000 across five European countries.

The following should make all coastal dwellers sit up and take notice. The rate at which global mean sea level is rising has doubled since the 1990s, when it averaged 2.27 mm a year. It’s now over 4.6 mm a year. Lag-times between rising emissions, rising temperatures, melting ice and rising sea level indicate an accelerating rate of sea level rise for decades, even centuries.

The future of global sea level will be determined by the fate of the world’s two great ice sheets, on Antarctica and Greenland, which have been steadily losing mass for at least 80 years. In Antarctica, exceptionally high snowfalls (a result of higher air temperatures) caused an unusual increase in ice mass in 2022, but melting continued apace in Greenland which had record high summer temperatures including the ice sheet’s first recorded September rain.

Melting mountain glaciers are important not so much for sea level but because they’re a significant water source for major river systems serving much of North and South America, Europe and Asia. Losing Himalayan glaciers would be a devastating blow for the most heavily populated countries on Earth.

Glacier melt in 2022, a normally cooler La Nina year, was the second highest globally since records began in 1950. Six of the ten biggest melt years have been since 2015. Melting in the Swiss alps broke all records by a wide margin, far beyond the range of historical variability, with average ice thickness dropping by three to four metres.

As if this isn’t enough there’s the problem of water, or its absence. Record-breaking rain led to monstrous floods in Pakistan that disrupted the lives of 33 million people, displaced almost 8 million and killed at least 1700. At the other end of the water spectrum, East Africa has been in serious drought for five consecutive years, leaving an estimated 37 million people facing acute food insecurity and inevitable social ills.

Last year’s extreme drought (East Africa, western US) and extreme flooding (Pakistan, NSW Northern Rivers and other places too numerous to mention) are both a result of a warmer atmosphere being able to take up more moisture – seven per cent for each degree of warming. 

On every continent and across the global ocean, climate change is already leaving its mark. All of the events and developments tracked in WMO’s 2022 report happened with warming of just 1.15C since the industrial era started about 250 years ago. Nearly all that warming has happened since 1950, and half of it since 2000.

Despite 2022 being a “cooler” La Niña year, it was still the fifth warmest on record. The warmest eight years in 173 years of instrument records are the eight most recent, 2015 to 2022. 

The IPCC expects the world to reach 1.5C of warming this decade or early in the 2030s. At the current emissions rate we will reach 2C well before 2050, the universal “net-zero” target year. And this is the point: if warming of just 1.15 C produced the results we saw in 2022 (not to mention preceding years), what might we expect from a 2C temperature rise? 

Every level of government in Australia from national down to local, along with every corporation, community and citizen, should be alarmed enough at the WMO report to set aside the net-zero marketing hype – because that’s what it is – and apply a laser-like focus to simply ending our use of fossil fuels.

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