The final numbers are in, and the heat in 2023 was record-smashing

Crowds of people swimming at Jinshan City Beach in Shanghai, China, on August 13th, 2023, during a heatwave after the government issued an orange alarm to warn people to take precautions against the heat. | Photo by Ying Tang / NurPhoto via Getty Image

2023 was a record-breaking scorcher, final numbers now show. While many of us felt the heat last year, it’s still mind-blowing to see the data. And it’s about to get hotter.

Officially, last year was the hottest in the books since record-keeping began in 1850. Looking farther back, last year’s temperatures “likely exceed those of any period in at least the last 100,000 years,” according to deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service Samantha Burgess.

The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service released data today that confirmed earlier predictions that the heat would be off the charts in 2023. It also made a worrying forecast for the new year, predicting that the world could soon surpass a critical threshold for climate change.

2023 didn’t just break records — it pulverized them, beating the previous hottest year of 2016 by a large margin. But big planetary changes can hinge on fractions of a degree in temperature change, so bear with me while I break down some of the numbers.

On average, global temperatures have risen about 1.2 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution due to greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. That might not seem like a big change, but it’s already been enough to fuel deadly heatwaves in Europe, North America, and China last year that would have been “extremely rare or even impossible without human-caused warming,” according to an international collaboration of researchers called World Weather Attribution. And that’s just one example of the many ways climate change has supercharged disasters around the world.

Two graphs show global surface temperatures rising steadily between 1850 and 2023.
Image: C3S / ECMWF
Global surface air temperature increase relative to the average for 1850–1900, the designated preindustrial reference period, based on several global temperature datasets shown as five-year averages since 1850 (left) and as annual averages since 1967 (right).

“The extremes we have observed over the last few months provide a dramatic testimony of how far we now are from the climate in which our civilisation developed. This has profound consequences for the Paris Agreement and all human endeavours,” Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said in the press release.

Turns out, 2023 was actually a whopping 1.48 degrees Celsius hotter than the preindustrial era. That is a very concerning jump in global average temperatures. In fact, the landmark Paris climate agreement commits nearly every country on Earth to working together to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or face even more dramatic climate disasters. That goal is quickly slipping out of reach.

According to Copernicus’ latest prediction, the 12-month period ending in January or February 2024 will “likely” surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial level. The UK’s Met Office also forecast that 2024 would be even hotter than last year.

Even so, hope isn’t lost for stopping climate change. The goal of the Paris accord is to avoid sustained average temperatures higher than 1.5 degrees. An El Niño climate pattern emerged in 2023 and worked alongside greenhouse gas emissions to raise temperatures particularly high last year, but El Niño is expected to end later this year.

Humans can also turn down the thermostat themselves by deploying clean energy and slashing planet-heating pollution. Whether the world hits global climate goals, every fraction of a degree makes a difference when it comes to our outlook for the future.

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