If you follow climate news (and you should), you’ve likely heard of the global warming “hiatus.” In attempts to keep the world hooked on diminishing reserves of polluting fossil fuels, climate science deniers seized on that phenomenon to claim the warming they once argued didn’t exist stopped. Others took up the false claim out of ignorance and fear.
Global warming didn’t stop. Quite the opposite: it accelerated. According to all legitimate scientific agencies that study climate, the past four years have been the warmest on record, and 2017 was the 41st consecutive year with global average temperatures higher than in the 20th century.
This year is also shaping up to be a record-breaker. But as the old saying goes, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” That’s because warming didn’t stop. The rate slowed slightly. And that’s over now.
Although climate scientists agree that human activity—mainly burning fossil fuels and destroying carbon sinks like forests and wetlands—is responsible for most or all of the current accelerated warming, natural factors play a significant role in climate. Natural variability in ocean and solar cycles, as well as volcanic activity and human factors such as aerosol pollution from Asia, are believed to have slowed the rate of warming slightly from 1999 to 2014.
Again, that doesn’t mean Earth stopped warming. It just warmed a bit slower than expected. In fact, some researchers claim the “hiatus” didn’t exist, attributing it to errors in temperature measurements or missing data.
Regardless, we know for certain that global warming is accelerating now and has been for decades. Countries around the world are failing to live up to their Paris Agreement commitments to keep emissions and temperatures down even as the consequences of rapid warming are making life difficult for people around the world.
A study by Florian Sévellec at France’s Laboratory of Ocean Physics and Remote Sensing, and Sybren Drijfhout at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, says this summer likely marks the beginning of a hotter-than-expected period until at least 2022.
Published in Nature Communications, the study used new forecasting technologies to determine that natural cycles will likely push the climate into an even warmer period for the next five years than would have occurred with human factors alone.
That doesn’t mean heat waves will occur everywhere. “That's because the forecast only covers global mean temperatures, not regional temperatures in certain parts of the world,” Sévellec told Deutsche Welle, adding, “It might be very hot in one part of the world, and still quite cold in another.”
We’ve seen the results here in British Columbia, my home province: a state of emergency as numerous wildfires blaze out of control, filling the air with smoke and particulate matter, forcing people out of their homes, compromising health and devastating wildlife and habitat. Costs for firefighting, property and resource loss, health care, and housing and feeding those forced from their homes are already staggering.
We’re not alone. High temperatures are breaking records worldwide. Deaths and injuries from heat-related causes have been rising rapidly since 1980, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Now, 30 per cent of the world’s population lives “in climatic conditions that deliver prolonged extreme heatwaves.”
Extreme weather events, including storms, droughts and floods, have compromised agriculture and sparked refugee and health crises.
“We have witnessed extraordinary weather, including temperatures topping 50 degrees Celsius in Asia, record-breaking hurricanes in rapid succession in the Caribbean and Atlantic reaching as far as Ireland, devastating monsoon flooding affecting many millions of people and a relentless drought in East Africa,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said. “Many of these events … bear the tell-tale sign of climate change caused by increased greenhouse gas concentrations from human activities.”
With scientists predicting even hotter temperatures and more heat waves over the next few years, we’re about to get a taste of what to expect if we fail to take every measure possible to slow and eventually halt human-caused climate disruption. There’s no shortage of solutions, only political will.
The question is, will we learn from the evidence staring us in the face or will we continue to frack, build pipelines for expanding olisands, drill the oceans and Arctic and revive the coal industry?
We don’t have much time to decide.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.