The world is warming faster than scientists expected

(FT) Talk about unfortunate timing. At the start of last week, the head of the world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, was applauded when he told the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston it was time to “abandon the fantasy of phasing out oil and gas”. Amin Nasser said the world needed instead to invest in fossil fuels to meet demand at a time when the clean energy transition was “visibly failing on most fronts”. 

One day later, the head of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, Celeste Saulo, received no applause for issuing a report that showed climate records had been not just broken but smashed in 2023, the hottest year on record. More than 90 per cent of the world’s oceans suffered heatwave conditions, glaciers lost the most ice on record and the extent of Antarctic sea ice fell to by far the lowest levels ever measured.

It is tempting to believe we have been here before. Oil, gas and coal executives have spent years insisting they must satisfy demand for the fossil fuels that still drive the global economy. More recently, even relatively more green-minded European oil companies have weakened their climate goals in the wake of soaring energy prices, and big investors have backed away from climate action initiatives that they only recently joined. UN agencies have warned all the while that those fuels are the biggest cause of a climate warming that is growing more intense.  

Yet when it comes to the physical state of the climate, we have not been here at all. To an extent not widely appreciated, the world is now warming at a pace that scientists did not expect and, alarmingly, do not fully understand. At a Financial Times conference this month, Jim Skea, the chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said last year’s spike in temperatures was “quicker than we all anticipated”.

“It was a surprise,” he said. “Ocean temperatures were just off the scale in terms of historic records. It was completely unusual and we still need to do more work to explain it.”

The unnerving implications of these findings were spelt out last week by Gavin Schmidt, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. Writing in the journal Nature, Schmidt warned that the data could imply that a warming planet was already “fundamentally altering how the climate system operates”. The surprising heat in 2023 had “come out of the blue”, he said, and revealed that “an unprecedented knowledge gap” had opened up for the first time since satellite data began to give scientists a real-time view of the climate system about 40 years ago.

This gap may mean we have a shakier grasp of what lies ahead — which is worrying when it comes to forecasting drought and rainfall patterns that are already aggravating food shortages. Theories for the unexpected warming range from a rise in solar activity ahead of a predicted solar maximum to new rules on cleaner shipping fuel that aim to cut sulphur emissions. Sulphur compounds in the atmosphere have a cooling effect.

But a full explanation remains elusive, which underlines a compelling echo of history. Schmidt’s position at Nasa was once held by another scientist, James Hansen, whose 1988 testimony to the US Congress alerted the world that global warming had begun. 

The world did not entirely ignore Hansen’s warnings in the 36 years that followed, but nor did it take them anywhere near seriously enough. Oil company bosses may prefer to preach a message of business as usual. But neither they nor anyone else can afford once again to downplay what science is showing us about a climate threat that is now moving into uncharted territory.

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