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'Time is fast running out': World Meteorological Organization warns climate efforts are falling short

“Climate change is the defining challenge of our time,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
People cool off in the Unisphere fountain at Flushing Meadow Corona Park in Queens, New York, on July 21, 2019.Johannes Eisele / AFP - Getty Images

The world is significantly falling short when it comes to efforts to curb climate change, according to a new report released Tuesday by the World Meteorological Organization.

The intergovernmental organization’s assessment evaluated a range of so-called global climate indicators in 2019, including land temperatures, ocean temperatures, greenhouse gas emissions, sea-level rise and melting ice. The report finds that most of these indicators are increasing, which means the planet is veering way off track in trying to control the pace of global warming.

“Climate change is the defining challenge of our time,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “Time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption and protect our societies from the inevitable impacts to come.”

And there were plenty of disruptions and impacts last year. The report, which linked events such as heat waves, flooding and extreme weather to climate change, highlighted how these disruptions have affected human health and security.

Two severe heat waves in Europe last summer, for example, led to 1,462 deaths in the affected regions, according to the report. The study also estimated that 22 million people were displaced by flooding and other extreme weather events in 2019, up from 17.2 million in 2018.

The report also confirmed that 2019 was the second warmest year on record. Global average temperatures last year were 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Last year fell shy of the record held by 2016, but the report noted that 2015 to 2019 are the five warmest years in recorded history. And since the 1980s, each subsequent decade has been warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.

Image: Western Greenland Hit By Unseasonably Warm Weather
Meltwater forms a lake on an iceberg in the Ilulissat Icefjord on Aug. 4, 2019 near Ilulissat, Greenland.Sean Gallup / Getty Images

The meteorological organization highlighted that emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases continued to rise last year, with early projections based on the first three quarters of 2019 indicating that global carbon dioxide emissions likely increased by 0.6 percent.

“Given that greenhouse gas levels continue to increase, the warming will continue,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, said in a statement. “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.”

The report outlined the impacts of human-caused warming on the world’s oceans, which play a crucial role in the planet’s carbon cycle by storing carbon and absorbing heat. According to the meteorological organization, oceans absorb about 90 percent of the heat trapped in the atmosphere from increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, the report found, oceans hit their warmest level in recorded history.

Warmer land and ocean temperatures also drive the melting of sea ice and glaciers, which can speed sea level rise around the globe. Both Antarctica and the Arctic recorded low sea ice extents in 2019, and sea levels continue to rise at an accelerated pace, according to the report.

“This is exposing coastal areas and islands to a greater risk of flooding and the submersion of low-lying areas,” Taalas said in the statement.

The trends highlighted in the report indicate that the world is failing to meet the goal set out by the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

“We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5 degrees C or 2 degrees C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for,” Guterres said in the statement. “This report outlines the latest science and illustrates the urgency for far-reaching climate action.”