Don't Say Nobody Warned Us

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The second decade of the 21st century is one marked by scientific breakthroughs and a questionable number of movie reboots. But it will also be remembered as a decade of climate breakdown.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released its annual compendium on the state of the climate, taking a 10-year view of things. And it’s pretty damn depressing stuff, showing we “almost certainly” just lived through the hottest decade ever recorded, and that carbon dioxide is at levels never seen in the history of humanity. If you’ve ever wondered what staring into the void looks like, this is it.

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Having lived through the past decade, reading the WMO report is like seeing one of those shitty videos Facebook serves you to celebrate years of friendship. There’s my old friend the Keeling Curve showing carbon dioxide year over year. Ah, who could forget that time we had three consecutive years of record heat. Or that time the oceans got so hot, the chart displaying ocean heat broke.

Zooming out from those “highlights” to look at the past 10 years shows those weren’t just isolated incidents. They defined the decade. The 2010s are the hottest on record. It beat the 2000s, which beat the 1990s, which beat the 1980s. That means the world is now 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than it was in pre-industrial times. The heat is driven by carbon dioxide, which has risen decade over decade in a similar manner and now also sits at levels unseen in millions of years. At the same time, Arctic sea ice has disappeared, marine heat waves have become more common, oceans have acidified, and the miserable list goes on.

Graphic: WMO
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As a retrospective, the report shows what we already know. But looking back is crucial to understand the choices in front of us, particularly as international climate talks (sponsored by Spain’s biggest carbon polluter) get underway in Madrid.

In essence, the climate is unraveling because the world lit a bunch of dead dinosaurs and ancient plant matter on fire. And it prioritized economic growth and tied said growth to said fire. Powerful interests vested in this system have spent the past few decades sowing doubt and pushing for inaction.

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Now we’re here, standing on the precipice. Another heavy-hitting report from the United Nations (UN) released last week shows the world needs to draw down greenhouse gas emissions by more than 7 percent per year throughout the 2020s to keep the globe from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times. And yet another report shows most countries have no plans to do that despite the huge risks further climate chaos poses.

As a climate journalist who has grown up in the field this decade (or anyone who lives on Earth, really), it’s disheartening to see this stuff all laid out. If the world fails to act over the next decade, nobody will be able to say it wasn’t for lack of warnings.

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