It wasn’t long ago when the sky over New York City turned Blade Runner orange, and wildfires apocalyptically engulfed much of California’s pristine coastline. Here’s why: 2023 was the hottest year since 1850, the year global temperature data was first recorded. Cue the perspiring dog in burning room meme: “This is fine.”
According to data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), a program backed by the European Union (EU), 2023 reported the hottest month on record in June, which beat out a heatwave from 2016 for the number one spot. 2023 had an average global temperature of 58.96°F (14.98°C). This is 0.31°F (0.17°C) higher than the previous highest annual value reported in 2016.
The group says that 2023 was 1.08°F (0.60°C) warmer than the 1991–2020 average and 2.66°F (1.48°C) warmer than the 1850–1900 pre-industrial level. The study was implemented by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts on behalf of the European Commission with funding from the EU.
2023 also saw a transition from a La Niña year to an El Niño year, when El Niño conditions began to develop in the spring. The report also posited unprecedented sea surface temperatures, namely in the Mediterranean, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and North Pacific, and the North Atlantic.
“We knew thanks to the work of the Copernicus programme throughout 2023 that we would not receive good news today,” the European Commission’s Mauro Facchini said in a statement. “But the annual data presented here provides yet more evidence of the increasing impacts of climate change. The European Union, in line with the best available science, has agreed on an emission reduction of 55% by 2030 – now just 6 years away. The challenge is clear. The Copernicus Programme, managed by the European Commission, is one the best tools available to guide our climate actions, keep us on track with the goals of the Paris Agreement and accelerate the green transition.”
These upticks led to heatwaves, floods, droughts and wildfires around the world. Paris saw an unprecedented heat wave last summer thanks to urban heat island effect, killing thousands of people. In London, last September 9 marked the second-hottest day in its history. In New York, wildfires in Canada blew smoke into the lungs of millions. Just walking around the block, inhaling the pollution, had the same health impact as smoking 30 cigarettes over the course of eight hours, The Gothamist reported.
Heat-related deaths disproportionately effect low-income communities in cities around the world because working class areas typically have less access to green space and tree shading, according to Dr. Pierre Masselot, a London professor who studies the issue. Writing for the Scientific American, Chelsea Harvey reported that almost 61,000 people died in Europe from global warming in 2022 alone, and 2023 saw an equivalent amount of heat-related deaths.
Last year, in Los Angeles and Phoenix, roadways were painted a reflective gray color to reduce surface temperatures up to 15 degrees. Similarly, New York City started a program that plants trees in low-income communities to combat heat island effect. This year, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced a program to plant 25 million trees around New York State to combat the crisis.
The tree planting initiatives may give reason to hope for some but, to the dismay of environmentalists, 2024 is looking even bleaker. “It is likely that a 12-month period ending in January or February 2024 will exceed 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level,” C3S stated. In 2018, a report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cautioned of continuing rising temperatures and set a goal to keep the warming increase under 2.7°F (1.5°C). The IPCC report from 2023 stated that in order to stay under 1.5°C, emissions would need to be cut by nearly half by 2030.
Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, added: “The extremes we have observed over the last few months provide a dramatic testimony of how far we now are from the climate in which our civilisation developed. This has profound consequences for the Paris Agreement and all human endeavours. If we want to successfully manage our climate risk portfolio, we need to urgently decarbonise our economy whilst using climate data and knowledge to prepare for the future.”