Following the publication this week of a grim report about the ever-worsening climate change crisis, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued a stark warning: The world must act now and with urgency — or it will soon be too late to avert the worst impacts of global warming.
“Climate change is the defining challenge of our time,” Guterres wrote in the foreword of the U.N. World Meteorological Organization’s 2019 global climate assessment published Tuesday. “We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5C or 2C targets that the Paris agreement calls for.”
Guterres also said this week that while it’s critical for governments to take immediate action to defeat the novel coronavirus spreading around the globe, he stressed that world leaders should not be distracted from the need to battle climate change as well.
While the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is expected to be a temporary scourge, Guterres said in a statement that climate change will “remain with us for decades and require constant action.”
Scientists have echoed this warning.
The WMO’s new climate report “points to a threat that is greater to our species than any known virus,” Brian Hoskins, a climatologist at Imperial College London and founding director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change, told The Guardian.
“We must not be diverted from the urgency of tackling it by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to zero as soon as possible,” Hoskins added.
The WMO report shows clearly that climate change is accelerating on land, in the oceans and in the atmosphere ― and the impacts are already being felt.
The oceans were the hottest on record in 2019, the report said; and 2018-2019 was the 32nd year in a row in which more glacial ice was lost than gained.
Sea levels were also pushed last year to the highest mark since records began.
The report also confirmed that 2019 was the second-warmest year on record; and the decade that began in 2010 was the warmest.
WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas warned that 2016, the warmest year on record, could soon be usurped.
“Given that greenhouse gas levels continue to increase, the warming will continue. A recent decadal forecast indicates that a new annual global temperature record is likely in the next five years. It is a matter of time,” Taalas said in a statement.
In 2019, extreme weather events, some of them unprecedented in scale, disrupted many parts of the globe, the WMO said. These included deadly floods in the Indian subcontinent, droughts in Australia and parts of Africa and South America, and an above-average number of tropical cyclones.
Such extreme weather events, coupled with an unpredictable and changing climate, has fueled a rise in hunger worldwide. In 2018, more than 820 million people were affected by hunger, the WMO report said.
Extreme weather and other climate-related disasters have also caused the displacement of millions of people. In 2019, an estimated 22 million people globally were displaced internally because of such disasters, up from 17 million the year before.
“The consequences [of climate change] are already apparent,” Guterres said in the report’s foreword. “More severe and frequent floods, droughts and tropical storms, dangerous heatwaves and rising sea levels are already severely threatening lives and livelihoods across the planet.”
“I call on everyone ― from government, civil society and business leaders to individual citizens – to heed these facts and take urgent action to halt the worst effects of climate change,” he added.