It’s official: February of 2016 was the hottest February on record, based on average global temperature.
But that’s not even the worst of it. From The Independent:
A dramatic surge in the Earth’s surface temperatures took place in February which saw the biggest month-on-month rise in global warming on record, latest figures released by Nasa show. As global temperatures rise well above their seasonal averages, especially in the northern hemisphere, the sea ice in the Arctic continues its overall downward trajectory with a new record monthly low for a February. While some of the temperature rise has been put down to the large El Nino event currently coming to an end in the Pacific Ocean, scientists repeated their warnings that the global climate system is now being strongly influenced by human emissions of greenhouse gases, especially by the rising concentrations of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. February was the warmest month on record, and 2016 is heading to become the warmest year on record, warmer even than 2015 which had itself set a clear record over previous warmest years, according to the global surface temperature measurements compiled and released by Nasa.
Generally speaking, one hot month could be dismissed as an outlier, and it’s possible that February of 2016 will prove itself to be one. But we’re also on course to set a record for sea ice coverage, and if the current temperature trends hold, 2016 will end up being the hottest year recorded. Of course, this means not just a mild winter and a warm spring, but an exceptionally hot summer. We may have to wait for many of the worst effects of climate change to impact most of the world. Heat-related illnesses, however, are not one of them. The Indian heat wave last summer killed thousands of people. Shortly after that came thousands more heat-related deaths in neighboring Pakistan. The UK also saw record rainfalls this past autumn, which caused historic flooding.
These extreme climate events will only become more common as the Earth warms. The Paris Agreement reached last year set a target to hold global warming to 1.5°C for this century, but it is very likely existing emissions, not to mention future emissions, are already going to push us past that limit.
This is not a reason to do nothing. It is, however, a reason to view the problem more urgently. In the US, at least, it isn’t viewed as a pressing issue. In fact, half of our state governors are climate change deniers. Perhaps ironically, Southern states–those most like to face drastic consequences of climate change–are overrepresented among the denialists. And while northern states will face their own natural disasters, their more proactive (and science-accepting) stances will help curb the worst extremes of climate change in those areas. Aiding Southern states is likely to be more expensive since preventive measures are going largely unimplemented, and when disaster strikes, the poor emergency infrastructure combined with wrongheaded small-government policies means federal agencies–disproportionately funded by wealthy northern states–will have to step in to clean up the mess.
I suppose it’s a damning assessment that we can’t even get different states in the same country to agree to combat climate change together, much less put in place an enforceable international agreement to address the crisis at a global level with real consequences for nations that refuse to comply. But here we see what are likely the limits of internationalism: the worst offenders when it comes to climate change are also large, powerful countries (including, most notoriously, the US) that it is virtually impossible for the rest of the world to hold accountable. The countries most vulnerable to climate change are small island countries and coastal nations which have either little or no non-coastal territory, and usually few resources to guard against high sea levels, hurricanes, and monsoons. Inland countries prone to heat waves will see those exacerbated, as well, not to mention the growing threat of droughts which may make the twenty-first century the era in which we collectively realize just how valuable and precious fresh water truly is. The civil war in Syria has been described at least in part as a water war, given that desperation over dwindling water supplies likely raised existing tensions to a breaking point. Will we see more wars over water and other basic resources this century? It’s almost unthinkable to people who live with such abundance–like Americans. But our isolation from the consequences of our actions is diminishing, and while we may be better able to weather the crisis than many countries, it will come at a great cost, and our stubborn refusal to both accept the underlying science and act upon it will harm not just us, but people the world over.
Centuries from now, after the full effects of climate change have shaken out and reshaped our world, historians may look back on this time as a turning point–the moment when the world could have banded together in common cause to solve a crisis that threatens us all, or play politics as usual while making empty promises and kicking the can down the road. We have made some progress, to be sure, but not enough to make a significant difference. Future generations–perhaps every generation to come, for as long as the human race survives–will pay the price.