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2020 on track to be one of the 3 warmest years on record

CBS News logo CBS News 12/3/2020 Jeff Berardelli
a sunset over a beach: ctm-02214-drought-640x360.jpg © Getty Images/iStockphoto ctm-02214-drought-640x360.jpg

"Climate change continued its relentless march in 2020," the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said as it announced the release of its State of the Global Climate 2020 report. The report says 2020 is on track to be one of three warmest years globally on record — adding to a growing list of extreme temperature records. 

The report details the climate alarm bells ringing around the world, from widespread ocean heat waves to historic fires in the U.S. and Amazon, devastating floods in Africa and Asia, and incredible sea-ice loss in the Arctic. Including 2020, it says the past six years are likely to be the six warmest years on record.

"To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken" was the stark warning laid out by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in his State of the Planet speech at Columbia University on Wednesday. "Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal," he said.

While the U.N. report paints a dire picture of the vast impact humanity is having due to global warming from the burning of fossil fuels, another report from Climate Action Tracker, an international, independent nonprofit which tracks government climate action, offered renewed hope that humanity now has a better chance of averting the worst impacts of climate change

Because of newly announced climate pledges from several nations including China, Climate Action Tracker says the world may now be on track to nearly achieve the upper-end goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, to keep global warming below 2 degrees Fahrenheit. 

China announced a pledge of being carbon-neutral by 2060, and President-elect Joe Biden has set a goal of doing so by 2050 for the United States. Climate Action Tracker's analysis shows that those changes could result in keeping warming to about 2.1 degrees Celsius. That's significantly better than the current trajectory, which has Earth on a path to at least 3 degrees Celsius of warming — enough to cause catastrophic problems around the world.

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The Earth has warmed far past pre-industrial levels. Future warming depends on choices made by humanity. On the current trajectory, the globe is set to warm by around 3 degrees Celsius. But new, more optimistic goals, may keep warming to 2.1 Celsius, according to Climate Action Tracker / Credit: Climate Action Tracker © Provided by CBS News The Earth has warmed far past pre-industrial levels. Future warming depends on choices made by humanity. On the current trajectory, the globe is set to warm by around 3 degrees Celsius. But new, more optimistic goals, may keep warming to 2.1 Celsius, according to Climate Action Tracker / Credit: Climate Action Tracker

While still dangerous, lessening warming by 1 degree Celsius could be the difference between manageable disaster and total catastrophe. But this only works if nations live up to their bold pledges — a big "if."

The more ambitious goal of the Paris accord is to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. But the WMO report says there is some chance the Earth may at least temporarily reach that level of warming as soon as the next few years. Regardless, at the current pace of warming, most experts agree the 1.5 degree target is likely to be breached year-after-year within a decade or two. 

One of the most alarming aspects of the report is the emergence of widespread and systemic ocean heat waves. According to the U.N., 80% of the World's oceans experienced heat waves in 2020, with nearly 50% of those considered strong. 

Red areas indicate areas which experienced ocean heat waves. The darker the red, the more extreme the heat. / Credit: UN Report © Provided by CBS News Red areas indicate areas which experienced ocean heat waves. The darker the red, the more extreme the heat. / Credit: UN Report

These ocean heat waves wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, decimating coral reefs and kelp forests, and displacing or killing fish and sea birds. Over the past few decades, marine heat wave days have increased dramatically.

 / Credit: Climate Central © Provided by CBS News / Credit: Climate Central

Ocean heat waves are considered a bellwether for the climate system. That's because more than 90% of the excess heat trapped by increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases is stored in the ocean. As a consequence the oceans set heat records year after year. That heat festers in the oceans for generations, impacting the climate for centuries to come.

In the case of 2020, that excess heat helped power the unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season, a point mentioned in the U.N. report. Nearly the entire North Atlantic remained above normal the entire hurricane season. The excess heat in the western Caribbean helped power the strongest storms of the season, Eta and Iota, very late in the fall.

Also mentioned in the report are 2020's remarkable heat waves and the raging wildfire season across the western U.S.

Climate impacts were felt in every corner of the globe. There was a heat wave so prolonged and intense in Siberia that climate scientists said it was essentially impossible without human-caused climate change. 

Also, across large stretches of Africa and Asia, flood events were devastating. In eastern Africa, the number of people hit by seasonal flooding has increased by 5 times in just the past few years. Part of this is due to an extremely strong Indian Ocean Dipole — a cycle in which ocean temperatures oscillate between warm and cold periods on opposite sides of the basin — in 2019-2020, which new research shows is made more likely and intense by global warming. 

The image below shows just how excessive the precipitation in Asia and Africa has been in 2020.

chart, scatter chart: Green colors indicate above normal rain and/or snowfall in Asia and central Africa. Brown colors show drier than normal areas, as seen in the western U.S. / Credit: UN Report © Provided by CBS News Green colors indicate above normal rain and/or snowfall in Asia and central Africa. Brown colors show drier than normal areas, as seen in the western U.S. / Credit: UN Report

In contrast, much of South America experienced exceptional drought in 2020. Agricultural losses totaled $3 billion and fires in much of the Amazon were the worst in decades.

In his Wednesday speech, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres cited these alarming climate indicators as evidence that, as he put it, "Nature always strikes back and it is doing so with growing force and fury." He stressed that if humanity has any hopes of stopping climate change before its impacts become catastrophic, nations will need to not only commit to aggressive ecological action, but also live up to those promises. 

Antonio Guterres wearing a suit and tie: U.N. chief warns planet moving toward "suicid... 04:59 © Provided by CBS News U.N. chief warns planet moving toward "suicid... 04:59
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