Decade of 'exceptional' heat likely to be hottest on record, experts say

Fiona Harvey in Madrid
Photograph: Darren Pateman/AAP

The last decade has been one of “exceptional” heat around the world, and was almost certainly the hottest on record, while the oceans have also warmed to record levels and grown markedly more acidic, the World Meteorological Organization has said.

Temperatures for the years from 2010 to 2019 were about 1.1C above the average for the pre-industrial period, showing how close the world is coming to the 1.5C of warming that scientists say will cause dramatic impacts, extreme weather and the loss of vital ecosystems.

The preliminary findings of the State of the Global Climate, an annual publication by the WMO, show that this year is on course to be the second or third warmest since records began.

Over land, the impacts from January to October have included severe droughts, heatwaves and floods across all inhabited continents, and over the seas there have also been heatwaves.

During the past year, the upper levels of the oceans, measured since the 1950s, have exceeded previous records so far this year, and the ocean experienced about 1.5 months of unusually warm temperatures, with large areas of the north-east Pacific showing severe heatwaves. The Arctic sea ice minimum in September was the third smallest on record. The final version of the report will be published in March.

(January 1, 1959) 


The physicist Edward Teller tells the American Petroleum Institute (API) a 10% increase in CO2 will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. “I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.”


(January 1, 1965) 


Lyndon Johnson’s President’s Science Advisory Committee states that “pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air”, with effects that “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings”. Summarising the findings, the head of the API warned the industry: “Time is running out.”


(January 2, 1970) 


Shell and BP begin funding scientific research in Britain this decade to examine climate impacts from greenhouse gases.


(January 1, 1977) 


A recently filed lawsuit claims Exxon scientists told management in 1977 there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases.


(January 1, 1981) 


An internal Exxon memo warns “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions from the company’s 50-year plan “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population)”.


(January 1, 1988) 


The Nasa scientist James Hansen testifies to the US Senate that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now”. In the US presidential campaign, George Bush Sr says: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect … As president, I intend to do something about it.”


(January 2, 1988) 


confidential report prepared for Shell’s environmental conservation committee finds CO2 could raise temperatures by 1C to 2C over the next 40 years with changes that may be “the greatest in recorded history”. It urges rapid action by the energy industry. “By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation,” it states.


(January 1, 1989) 


Exxon, Shell, BP and other fossil fuel companies establish the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group that challenges the science on global warming and delays action to reduce emissions.


(January 1, 1990) 


Exxon funds two researchers, Dr Fred Seitz and Dr Fred Singer, who dispute the mainstream consensus on climate science. Seitz and Singer were previously paid by the tobacco industry and questioned the hazards of smoking. Singer, who has denied being on the payroll of the tobacco or energy industry, has said his financial relationships do not influence his research.


(January 1, 1991) 


Shell’s public information film Climate of Concern acknowledges there is a “possibility of change faster than at any time since the end of the ice age, change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation”.


(January 1, 1992) 


At the Rio Earth summit, countries sign up to the world’s first international agreement to stabilise greenhouse gases and prevent dangerous manmade interference with the climate system. This establishes the UN framework convention on climate change. Bush Sr says: “The US fully intends to be the pre-eminent world leader in protecting the global environment.”


(January 1, 1997) 


Two month’s before the Kyoto climate conference, Mobil (later merged with Exxon) takes out an ad in The New York Times titled Reset the Alarm, which says: “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”


(January 1, 1998) 


The US refuses to ratify the Kyoto protocol after intense opposition from oil companies and the GCC.


(January 1, 2009) 


The US senator Jim Inhofe, whose main donors are in the oil and gas industry, leads the “Climategate” misinformation attack on scientists on the opening day of the crucial UN climate conference in Copenhagen, which ends in disarray.


(January 1, 2013) 


A study by Richard Heede, published in the journal Climatic Change, reveals 90 companies are responsible for producing two-thirds of the carbon that has entered the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age in the mid-18th century.


(January 1, 2016) 


The API removes a claim on its website that the human contribution to climate change is “uncertain”, after an outcry.


(January 1, 2017) 


Exxon, Chevron and BP each donate at least $500,000 for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.


(January 1, 2019) 


Mohammed Barkindo, secretary general of Opec, which represents Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Iran and several other oil states, says climate campaigners are the biggest threat to the industry and claims they are misleading the public with unscientific warnings about global warming.

Jonathan WattsGarry Blight and Pablo Gutiérrez


Petteri Taalas, the WMO secretary general, said the impacts of rising concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere were becoming ever more harmful, as demonstrated in this year’s extreme weather events.

“Heatwaves and floods which used to be once-in-a-century events are becoming more regular occurrences. Countries from the Bahamas to Japan to Mozambique suffered devastating tropical cyclones. Wildfires swept through the Arctic and Australia,” he said.

He warned that more erratic rainfall patterns posed a threat to crop yields, which, combined with population increases, would mean “considerable food security challenges for vulnerable countries in the future”.

The findings came as the world’s governments gathered in Madrid for a critical UN conference on the climate. On Monday, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned that though the technology and economic means to fight climate chaos were available, political will was lacking.

He called on world leaders and governments to pay heed to young people, who were “showing remarkable leadership and mobilisation”.

The latest WMO figures showed the pattern of warming was growing stronger, warned Keith Shine, regius professor of meteorology and climate science at the University of Reading.

“Each of the past four decades has been 0.1 to 0.2C warmer than the decade before. Carbon dioxide levels have continued their relentless rise, and methane levels have grown much more rapidly than in the previous decade. Unless things start to change markedly, it is going to get harder and harder to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.”

While average temperatures may seem to be only gradually creeping up over decades, this disguises the true impact on lives, explained Grant Allen, professor of atmospheric physics at the University of Manchester.

“This [temperature rise] does not simply mean slightly warmer summers, it means an increased frequency of extreme weather globally – droughts, heatwaves, flooding and changing patterns in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones.

“These impacts are real and happening now and place huge pressures on communities and countries – put simply, these impacts make for a more unstable world, and are already having profound impacts on our ecosystems and biodiversity.”