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The terrifying math of the incoming El Niño

We are, right now, living in a dangerously warmed climate


Tree ridge in flames during the 2018 Woolsey Fire that burned in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, California. Photo courtesy Peter Buschmann/United States Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons.

One and a half degrees is dead. The world will blow past that milestone in the next year.

At least, that’s what climate scientist James Hansen and his collaborators at Columbia University’s Earth Institute predicted in January.

Hansen’s prediction was based primarily on the fact that an important ocean cycle known as ENSO was expected to transition from La Niña to El Niño. ENSO carries with it a global temperature effect: La Niña keeps temperatures somewhat below their running average while El Niño elevates them.

We’ve been in a cooler La Niña period since 2019, but despite that cooling effect, 2020, 2021, and 2022 were all in the top seven warmest years ever recorded.

Hansen’s prediction was earlier than most, but now that a transition to a full (and possibly quite strong) El Niño pattern by fall at the latest is considered quite likely, others have begun to issue similar, if more circumspect forecasts.

Carbon Brief, for example, just published an analysis indicating that 2023 will end up “between the warmest year on record and the sixth warmest”—which reads like bit of a hedge, given that the last eight years make up the entirety of the list of the eight warmest years ever.

What’s clear, whether Hansen is proven right or not, is that this year will be dangerously warm. So will the one after it. And the one after that. And before long, we will live through a year where global surface temperatures are, on average, more than 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than they were 150 years ago (and for the majority of the Holocene, the 10,000 year period of climate stability prior to that).

A single year over 1.5 degrees does not necessarily mean we’ve failed to limit warming to 1.5C—international climate goals are focused on a running average. But according to Hansen and others, even that ship has already sailed. Despite all the talk about 1.5C-compatible fossil fuel use and carbon budgets, we’re already committed.

Not all climate scientists agree with Hansen on this point; his argument is based on what he calls a “Faustian bargain.” Human-made aerosol pollutants (emitted by heavy industry, and particularly by marine transport) have a cooling effect that counteracts the impacts of greenhouse gasses and has not been properly accounted for in climate sensitivity calculations. These aerosols have masked the level of anthropogenic heating caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gasses, meaning that as we clean up these pollutants, Earth’s temperature will rebound upwards, pushing us quickly beyond 1.5C.

But whether or not we’re “committed” to exceeding the 1.5C threshold isn’t really important. What matters is that we’ve already crossed into the danger zone. As the Guardian put it after 2021’s heat waves in western Canada, “Nowhere is safe.” Many more climate vulnerable places in the Global South left the realm of safety decades earlier.

Two weeks ago, Environment Canada reported that temperature records were broken in eight areas across British Columbia, many of them by two degrees or more. Wildfires are already raging across western Canada.

We are, right now, living in a dangerously warmed climate. That means two things: first, that climate adaptation—infrastructure and policy decisions focused on mitigating the harm that our new, perennially warming climate is causing—is not some far-off question. We need to be preparing for the next unprecedented heat wave, flood, fire, or wind event as though it were coming this summer—because it very well might be.

Second, and more fundamentally, it means there is no margin of safety left, if there ever was one.

The carbon budget for staying in a stable climate—the only climate organized human society has ever known—is exhausted. Net zero by 2050 means warming the world well beyond what’s baked in today. Global heating will continue accelerating until emissions peak, and the world will keep heating up until we’re past net zero and into the negatives. Even that inflection point depends on our not having gone too far.

If we warm the world too much by the time we reach net zero, we could trigger tipping points that will push the Earth into a completely different state (what scientists have called “Hothouse Earth”).

Stop for a second and imagine a world just in 2030 where warming has continued to accelerate, or in the best case, has simply carried on at its current rapid rate, for seven more years. That’s seven more of the hottest years on record—and if the last eight years were any guide—each hotter than the last.

Every single ton of greenhouse gasses emitted now causes direct harm to humans and the more-than-human world that we live within and depend upon. That changes the moral calculus.

It might even change the legal calculus, according to a new paper that outlines an argument for charging fossil fuel companies with homicide based on the impacts of their products.

But the moral calculus is what’s important for those of us who aren’t lawyers. As the academic and activist Andreas Malm explored in How to Blow Up a Pipeline (a book which, for better or worse, does not contain the information advertised on its cover), “things like pipelines and diggers and SUVs”—not to mention megayachts, private jets, and oil sands mines—are now in the balance against “a weight that must tend towards the infinite because it encompasses all values”—life on our planet.

The safe, stable, civilization-enabling climate of the Holocene is over. This new El Niño is the kick that’s pushing us into truly unprecedented territory. It’s not a question of if we will experience catastrophic heat waves, floods, and fires in Canada, but how often, and how deadly. And we’re considered some of the lucky ones as far as climate vulnerability goes.

Every action has to be weighed on this scale going forward. Most of all, that means new fossil fuel infrastructure and super-emitting luxury consumption—how many lives will this drill pad destroy? How many people are killed by each billionaire’s superyacht? But it also means your vacation to Hawaii or your new SUV.

And it goes beyond what we need to avoid. As Malm suggested, at some point, circumstances transform the moral duty not to cause harm into a duty to help.

If every ton of emissions avoided saves lives, that means stopping or even delaying projects like Coastal GasLink (and its associated “methane bomb,” the shale gas fields of northeast BC), Trans Mountain, or Bay du Nord saves lives. Every grove of carbon-sequestering ancient forest protected from deforestation saves lives. Every private jet terminal blockaded, even for a few hours, saves lives.

There’s no blueprint for how to live in this moment. I don’t have the answers any more than anyone else. But the present and future of humanity, and perhaps even life on Earth, are threatened by the formations of fossil capital—governments and a ruling class seemingly dead set on burning the world.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in northern BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.


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