2023 Climate Overview: Navigating the Hottest Year and the Road Ahead

2023 stands as a year of climatic wake-up calls (if any more were needed), signaling a critical juncture in our global environmental narrative. Officially recorded as the hottest year, with average temperatures reaching around 14.98°C, it surpassed the 2016 records.

While this reality may present some difficult emotions, these are the facts we're dealing with. This is a little article to talk this through and figure out what we do next.

Record-Breaking Global Temperatures

It was was 0.60°C hotter than the 1991-2020 average and 1.48°C hotter than the 1850-1900 pre-industrial level1. Close to 50% of days were more than 1.5°C hotter than the 1850-1900 level, and two days in November were, for the first time, more than 2°C warmer.

While June to December continually broke records, warmer than any corresponding month in any previous year, perhaps more shocking was that December was the hottest on record globally. It had an average temperature of 13.51°C, 0.85°C above the 1991-2020 average and 1.78°C above the 1850-1900 level for the month. Well on the way to the Paris Agreement's upper target of 2°C.

It's important to say that the climate events of 2023 haven't officially killed the Paris Agreement's aspirations, as it would need to be for a longer period than a single year, but it clearly shows we're still firmly heading in that direction (as predicted by the climate models).

Still, it feels like a pivotal moment. One to take stock and redouble our efforts.

Daily global Temperature Increase About Pre-Industrial Level in 2023 via Copernicus
NOAA Selected Significant Climate Events in 2023

Oceans Feeling the Heat

Our oceans weren't left out of the heating trend. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) consistently hit record highs from spring through to December, influenced by the ongoing rise in greenhouse gas concentrations and the onset of El Niño. This increase contributed to marine heatwaves felt globally, impacting regions across the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and beyond.

The year's oceanic temperatures set new records, reflecting the ongoing impact of greenhouse gas concentrations and El Niño, with Antarctic sea ice reaching historic lows and the Arctic following closely. 

Daily Sea Surface Temperature 2023 via Copernicus

A Quick Recap on the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement, endorsed by 195 countries in 2015, calls for concerted efforts to limit the temperature increase to between 1.5°C to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Yet, each UN-backed Conference of Parties (COP) meeting exposes the gap between aspiration and reality.

While governments navigate the intricate dynamics of international diplomacy, a powerful fossil fuel industry, embodied emissions in everything we do, our planet has already warmed by approximately 1.1°C to 1.3°C since pre-industrial times.

The recent 2023 figures from Copernicus and Berkeley Earth suggest we are hovering around the 1.5°C mark, although it's important to note that the Paris Agreement threshold represents an average temperature increase over a couple of decades, not a single year.

The science says that we're likely to permanently breach the average temperature increase of 1.5 celsius within the next 8-10 years. It's too early to say how the climate models may be revised based on 2023s record breaking real world events, and whether we should expect to go past 1.5°C before the early 2030s.

To help grasp the urgency of our shared situation, consider our current carbon dioxide levels - now 50% above pre-industrial levels. Such concentrations have not been seen on Earth for at least the past 800,000 years. To find a parallel, we have to journey back three million years, a time when global surface temperatures were significantly hotter, and sea levels were drastically higher than today.

2023 Greenhouse Gas Concentrations via Carbon Brief

The Criticality of 1.5°C and Tipping Points

Understanding the importance of this threshold we hear so much about is crucial.

Scientists emphasize that capping warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is vital to prevent drastic and irreversible alterations in our climate system. This is not just about protecting the natural environment; it's about safeguarding human health, economies, ecosystems and the entire web of life. Beyond 1.5°C, the risks of extreme weather, significant sea-level rise, and the loss of delicate ecosystems like coral reefs escalate dramatically.

In our courses we talk about the potential climate tipping points—those critical thresholds which, once crossed, could lead us to irreversible climate states. Recent findings suggest that five global systems are teetering on the edge of these tipping points, even at our current level of warming. These include critical regions like the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs, and the North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre circulation.

We will never give in to the doomism and we say this not to be alarmist, but to be clear-eyed on what we are all working for, why it matters and how much skin in the game we all have in tackling the climate crisis.

Facing the Reality and Moving Forward

While, theoretically, it's still possible to skirt the 1.5°C of global temperature increase, the odds are not presently in our favor. Halting warming requires us to slash emissions to near-zero levels. The reality is that our pathways to 1.5°C are becoming increasingly narrow, given the current pace of government and corporate action.

The trajectory we are on, vividly illustrated by the data from 2023, re-highlights the urgent need for immmediate emissions reductions of at least half by 2030. People from all walks of life play a huge roll in escalating the ambition of climate action to make that our new direction of travel.

Despite the challenges 2023 brought, we refuse to succumb to despair. The recent developments have further transformed our apprehension, occasional anxiety, into a fierce resolve. Recognizing the tireless efforts of countless individuals and organizations worldwide striving for climate solutions, we stand alongside them.

We choose hope, we choose action, and we choose resilience. If we surpass 1.5°C, we'll strive for every fraction of a degree to keep it under 2°C, while making the science-backed case why it's best to bring it back down by combining decarbonization with high permanence carbon removal. Because every fraction of a degree matters, and so does every effort to make a positive and lasting impact.

The path forward is clear, and requires deep global decarbonization, combined with actively removing as much of the greenhouse gases we've already released as possible. Onward we go!

It's Past Time to get Moving

From the hottest months and seasons to unprecedented ocean temperatures and shrinking ice sheets, 2023 was a year that reiterated the pressing reality of climate change. These records are not just numbers; they are a clear signal that our planet is speaking, and it's past time we listen and act with our full intent and capability.

In the words of the experts, the message is clear: we need to urgently decarbonize our economy and harness the power of climate data to navigate the our path into the future more wisely. It's a challenge with nuance and complexity, sure, but also an opportunity to steer our collective journey towards a sustainable future, one that's more desirable for everyone and everything that lives here.

Remember, every action counts - whether you're acting as an individual or part of a larger organization - and it's never too late to start! For huge parts of tackling human-caused climate change we know what to do, we're just not - currently - doing it fast enough, and that's something we can fix. This energy - to do more than ever - is what we're taking into 2024.

If you liked this article, you'll enjoy our free Intro to Climate, Code Red, Carbon Removal and Climate Companies courses. They break down everything you need to know into easy-to-read installments with everything explained and what we can do about it. Annnnnnnd we're making more!

Have hope, make progress 💚
Team Zopeful

Sources, references and further reading:
1. Copernicus
2. Carbon Brief
4. WMO
5. Berkley Earth
4. Statista 

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