2023 State of the Climate Report

Anna Triponel

November 3, 2023
Our key takeaway: These words by the world’s most prominent scientists say it all: “The truth is that we are shocked by the ferocity of the extreme weather events in 2023. We are afraid of the uncharted territory that we have now entered. Conditions are going to get very distressing and potentially unmanageable for large regions of the world, with the 2.6°C warming expected over the course of the century, even if the self-proposed national emissions reduction commitments of the Paris Agreement are met. We warn of potential collapse of natural and socioeconomic systems in such a world where we will face unbearable heat, frequent extreme weather events, food and fresh water shortages, rising seas, more emerging diseases, and increased social unrest and geopolitical conflict.” In the 2023 state of the climate report, the scientists delve into recent trends in planetary vital signs, finding that 20 of the 35 vital signs are now showing record extremes. The data shows “how the continued pursuit of business as usual has, ironically, led to unprecedented pressure on the Earth system, resulting in many climate-related variables entering uncharted territory.” By 2100, “3 to 6 billion individuals— approximately one-third to one-half of the global population— might find themselves confined beyond the livable region, encountering severe heat, limited food availability, and elevated mortality rates because of the effects of climate change.” Rather than an approach focused only on carbon reduction and climate change, the scientists call for us to address the underlying issue of ecological overshoot which “will give us our best shot at surviving these challenges in the long run. This is our moment to make a profound difference for all life on Earth, and we must embrace it with unwavering courage and determination to create a legacy of change that will stand the test of time.”

A collective of scientists (William J. Ripple, Christopher Wolf , Jillian W. Gregg, Johan Rockström, Thomas M. Newsome, Beverly E. Law, Luiz Marques, Timothy M. Lenton, Chi Xu, Saleemul Huq, Leon Simons and Sir David Anthony King) published The 2023 state of the climate report: Entering uncharted territory (October 2023). The report measures how the planet is faring based on 35 vital signs:

Life on planet Earth is under siege

The report clearly sets out the threats ahead, in this climate situation that no one has ever witnessed firsthand before:

  • “We are now in an uncharted territory. For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Un- fortunately, time is up. We are seeing the manifestation of those predictions as an alarming and unprecedented succession of climate records are broken, causing profoundly distressing scenes of suffering to unfold. We are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity.”
  • “The trends reveal new all-time climate-related records and deeply concerning patterns of climate-related disasters. At the same time, we report minimal progress by humanity in combating climate change.”
  • “It is the moral duty of us scientists and our institutions to clearly alert humanity of any potential existential threat and to show leadership in taking action”
  • “The effects of global warming are progressively more severe, and possibilities such as a worldwide societal breakdown are feasible and dangerously underexplored.”
  • “By the end of this century, an estimated 3 to 6 billion individuals— approximately one-third to one-half of the global population— might find themselves confined beyond the livable region, encountering severe heat, limited food availability, and elevated mortality rates because of the effects of climate change.”
  • “Big problems need big solutions. Therefore, we must shift our perspective on the climate emergency from being just an isolated environmental issue to a systemic, existential threat.”
  • “Although global heating is devastating, it represents only one aspect of the escalating and interconnected environmental crisis that we are facing (e.g., biodiversity loss, fresh water scarcity, pandemics).”
  • “We need policies that target the underlying issues of ecological overshoot where the human demand on Earth’s resources results in overexploitation of our planet and biodiversity decline. As long as humanity continues to exert extreme pressure on the Earth, any attempted climate- only solutions will only redistribute this pressure.”

Climate-related all-time records

“In 2023, we witnessed an extraordinary series of climate-related records being broken around the world. The rapid pace of change has surprised scientists and caused concern about the dangers of extreme weather, risky climate feedback loops, and the approach of damaging tipping points sooner than expected.”

The report details a list of climate-related all-time records, including:

  • Exceptional heat waves have swept across the world, leading to record high temperatures. 
  • The oceans have been historically warm, with global and North Atlantic sea surface temperatures both breaking records and unprecedented low levels of sea ice surrounding Antarctica
  • June through August of this year was the warmest period ever recorded
  • In early July, we witnessed Earth’s highest global daily average surface temperature ever measured, possibly the warmest temperature on Earth over the past 100,000 years 
  • Global daily mean temperatures never exceeded 1.5-degree Celsius (°C) above preindustrial levels prior to 2000 and have only occasionally exceeded that number since then. However, 2023 has already seen 38 days with global average temperatures above 1.5°C by 12 September—more than any other year—and the total may continue to rise. 
  • Even more striking are the enormous margins by which 2023 conditions are exceeding past extremes
  • On 7 July 2023, Antarctic sea ice reached its lowest daily relative extent since the advent of satellite data, at 2.67 million square kilometers below the 1991–2023 average
  • Other variables far outside their historical ranges include the area burned by wildfires in Canada which may indicate a tipping point into a new fire regime

Recent trends in planetary vital signs

“On the basis of time series data, 20 of the 35 vital signs are now showing record extremes. [T]hese data show how the continued pursuit of business as usual has, ironically, led to unprecedented pressure on the Earth system, resulting in many climate-related variables entering uncharted territory.”

  • Energy: “It appears the green recovery following COVID-19 that many had hoped for has largely failed to materialize. Instead, carbon emissions have continued soaring, and fossil fuels remain dominant, with annual coal consumption reaching a near all-time high of 161.5 exajoules in 2022.” “Although the consumption of renewable energy (solar and wind) grew a robust 17% between 2021 and 2022, it remains roughly 15 times lower than fossil fuel energy consumption.”
  • Forests: “Between 2021 and 2022, the global tree cover loss rate declined 9.7% to 22.8 million hectares (ha) per year.””However, humanity is not on track to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 …Moreover, forests are increasingly threatened by powerful climate feedback loops involving processes such as insect damage, dieback, and wildfire … there is a real risk that increasing fire severity will cause unrecoverable carbon loss in a warming future.”
  • Global mean greenhouse gases and temperature: “On the basis of year-to-date statistics for 2023, three important greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide— are all at record levels.” The global average carbon dioxide concentration is now approximately 420 parts per million, which is far above the proposed planetary boundary of 350 parts per million.”
  • Oceans and ice: “Ocean acidity, glacier thickness, and Greenland ice mass all fell to record lows, whereas sea level rise and ocean heat content rose to record highs.” “The increase in heat content and the rapid rise in sea surface temperatures are especially troubling, because they could have many serious impacts, including the loss of sea life, coral reefs dying because of bleaching, and a rise in the intensity of large tropical storms.”
  • Climate impacts and extreme weather: “Climate change is contributing significantly to human suffering.” “In 2023, climate change likely contributed to a number of major extreme weather events and disasters. Several of these events demonstrate how climate extremes are threatening wider areas that have not typically been prone to such extremes; for example, severe flooding in northern China, around Beijing, killed at least 33 people. Other recent disasters include deadly flash floods and landslides in northern India, record-breaking heat waves in the United States, and an exceptionally intense Mediterranean storm that killed thousands of people, primarily in Libya.”

Scientists’ warning recommendations

“Coordinated efforts in each of these areas could help to support a broader agenda focused on holistic and equitable climate policy.”

  • Economics: “The fundamental challenge lies in the difficulty of decoupling economic growth from harmful environmental impacts.” “The impacts vary greatly by wealth; in 2019, the top 10% of emitters were responsible for 48% of global emissions, whereas the bottom 50% were responsible for just 12%. We therefore need to change our economy to a system that supports meeting basic needs for all people instead of excessive consumption by the wealthy.”
  • Stopping warming: “To mitigate these past emissions and stop global warming, efforts must be directed toward eliminating emissions from fossil fuels and land-use change and increasing carbon sequestration with nature-based climate solutions. However, it is crucial to explore other possible strategies to efficiently remove additional carbon dioxide, which can con- tribute to long-term planetary cooling.” 
  • Stopping coal consumption: “In addition to its destructive effects on ecosystems and global health, coal accounts for more than 80% of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere since 1870 and roughly 40% of current carbon dioxide emissions. As of 2022, global coal consumption is near record levels.” “Coal usage in China has accelerated rapidly in the past decades, and the country now still produces nearly a third of all fossil fuel carbon dioxide and methane emissions.”
  • Feedback loops: “Climate feedback loops directly affect the relationship between emissions and warming. For example, warming causes permafrost soils to thaw, emitting methane and carbon dioxide that result in further warming.” “Despite their importance, the combination of multiple amplifying feedback loops are not well understood, and the potential strengths of some dangerous feedback loops are still highly uncertain”
  • Food security and undernourishment: “After declining for many years, the prevalence of undernourishment is now on the rise. In 2022, an estimated 735 million people faced chronic hunger—an increase of roughly 122 million since 2019.” “Climate change has reduced the extent of global agricultural productivity growth, so there is danger that hunger will escalate in the absence of immediate climate action.” “Because of the growing risks of concurrent major crop losses in multiple regions of the world, adaptation-focused efforts are needed to improve crop resilience and resistance to heat, drought, and other climate stressors.”
  • Justice: “The impacts of climate change are already catastrophic for many. However, these impacts are not unfolding uniformly across the entire globe. Instead, they disproportionately affect the world’s most impoverished individuals, who, ironically, have had the least role in causing this issue.” “To achieve socioeconomic justice and universal human well-being, it is crucial to strive for a convergence in per capita resource and energy consumption worldwide.”

“To address the overexploitation of our planet, we challenge the prevailing notion of endless growth and overconsumption by rich countries and individuals as unsustainable and unjust. Instead, we advocate for reducing resource overconsumption; reducing, reusing, and recycling waste in a more circular economy; and prioritizing human flourishing and sustainability. We emphasize climate justice and fair distribution of the costs and benefits of climate action, particularly for vulnerable communities. We call for a transformation of the global economy to prioritize human well-being and to provide for a more equitable distribution of resources. We also call to stabilize and gradually decrease the human population with gender justice through voluntary family planning and by supporting women’s and girls’ education and rights, which reduces fertility rates and raises the standard of living. These environmentally conscious and socially equitable strategies necessitate far-reaching and holistic transformations in the long run that could be achieved through gradual but significant steps in the short term (i.e., radical incrementalism.)”

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