United Nations Report Shows That Climate Change Is Accelerating

Scientists say there is a 90 percent chance that one of the next five years will be the hottest on record

Firefighters in helicopters battle a 1,300 acre brush fire in Pacific Palisades on May 17.
Firefighters in helicopters battle a 1,300 acre brush fire in Pacific Palisades on May 17. The California fire season started early this year. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On May 27, the World Meteorological Organization released its decadal survey, which included dire predictions: there is a 90 percent chance that one of the next five years will be the hottest on record, and a 40 percent chance that we will experience a year with a global average temperature 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.

The Paris Agreement has denoted 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of change as a benchmark of global warming to avoid. Although one year of reaching that level of warming does not mean the Paris Agreement has been broken; the agreement refers to averages taken over many years. But it shows that the world remains on a trend of warming temperatures.

"We're seeing accelerating change in our climate," says Arizona State University climate scientist and WMO rapporteur Randall Cerveny, who was not involved in the report, to NPR’s Rebecca Hersher. "We had had some hopes that, with last year's COVID scenario, perhaps the lack of travel [and] the lack of industry might act as a little bit of a brake. But what we're seeing is, frankly, it has not."

The WMO found that 2020 had an average global temperature of about 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. And over the next five years, the organization predicts that the average global temperature will be about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than pre-industrial levels.

Each year, the global average temperature fluctuates due to weather events like El Niño. So scientists say a 44 percent chance exists that one of the next five years will reach 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming, per NPR. The chance as doubled since last year.

The WMO report follows a climate report focused on the United States that was released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week. Based on the last 30 years of data, NOAA outlined new “climate normals” for the country, Carolyn Gramling reports for Science News.

Compared to the previous 30-year period, the average temperature of the contiguous United States rose from 52.8 degrees Fahrenheit to 53.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about one degree warmer than the pre-industrial average. Southern and southwestern states saw both the largest increase in temperature and largest decrease in precipitation, per Science News.

“These are more than just statistics,” says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in a statement. “Increasing temperatures mean more melting ice, higher sea levels, more heatwaves and other extreme weather, and greater impacts on food security, health, the environment and sustainable development.”

Through the Paris Agreement, countries have committed to keeping global average temperatures below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of warming compared to the late 1800s, with a limit of 2.7 degrees of warming set as a more ambitious goal. To keep temperatures below that level of warming, United Nations climate scientists in 2018 recommended dramatically cutting greenhouse gas pollution, ending the expansion of fossil fuels, phasing out projects that emit fossil fuels and ending polluting industries, Dharma Noor reports for Gizmodo. Otherwise, the planet will face a climate catastrophe.

“A single year hitting 1.5°C [2.7 degrees F] therefore doesn’t mean the Paris limits are breached, but is nevertheless very bad news,” says Imperial College London climate scientist Joeri Rogelj in a statement. “It tells us once again that climate action to date is wholly insufficient and emissions need to be reduced urgently to zero to halt global warming.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.