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Heeding Warnings: World Meteorological Organization’s 2019 Report on the Global Climate

WHO_Global Climate 2019_CoverBy Dr. Marc Kodack

As a complement to the Center for Climate and Security’s recent post on the Intelligence Community’s warnings about pandemics, and climate change, in its’ 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, it’s worth re-visiting the World Meteorological Organization’s report summarizing the state of the global climate in 2019 (the report; a summary). This report also contains warnings that should be heeded and acted upon as soon as possible, rather than waiting for catastrophic risks to emerge. The report is based on the latest scientific research, and summaries are provided for key global climate variables including “global mean surface temperature, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, global seal level, ocean acidification, sea-ice extent and the mass balance of glaciers and ice sheets.” These variables collectively affect short term weather events that then influence long-term climate changes, and the picture is one that should have all security analysts concerned.

WMO found that the long-term trend for increases in temperature, the concentration of greenhouse gases, and sea level continues unabated. Significant wildfires in Australia and Siberia scorched millions of acres causing the deaths of people and an unknown number of animals. Heatwaves affected Europe, Japan, Australia, and southern South America. Flooding affected India, Australia, Indonesia, Iran, parts of Africa, and the southern and midwestern U.S. Tropical cyclones in both the northern and southern hemispheres were above average. Two named cyclones were particularly damaging—Hurricane Dorian in the Caribbean, U.S., and Canada, and Typhoon Hagibis that struck Japan. Drought affected southeast Asia and Australia.

In 2019 the global mean temperature was approximately 1.1 0C (1.98 0F) “above the 1850-1900 baseline…an approximation of pre-industrial levels.” Thus, 2019 was the second warmest year on record, with 2015-2019 being the five warmest on record. The atmospheric concentrations for the main greenhouse gases of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), all increased to new highs. Ocean heat content continued to rise, exceeding the rises documented in 2018. Like terrestrial heatwaves, maritime heatwaves (MHW) also occur. MHW’s are classified as moderate, strong, severe, and extreme. They are increasing in frequency with more being classified as strong. In 2019, 41% of MHW were classified as strong vs. 29% that were classified as moderate. Globally, sea level continues to rise at an increasing rate because of increasing ice mass loss and warmer sea temperatures, although there are regional differences, e.g., South Atlantic; North Pacific.

The global climate change trends that the WMO documented for 2019 will continue into 2020. Thus, unless global actions are taken soon, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, likely surpassing 1.5 0C and possibly 2 0C, driving uninterrupted increases in all the key global climate variables. The result will be increased climate risks to the world’s human populations and ecosystems. These risks will be to human health, the natural and built environment, food systems, water security, and the global economy, which will have far-reaching consequences for security, and even the viability of democratic systems. As noted in the Center for Climate and Security’s recently-released “A Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change,” even a 1.5 0C – 2 0C increase could pose “very high” security threats, across all regions of the globe, and not just the most vulnerable. In a 2 0C – 4 0C world, those security risks could become catastrophic.

When the public contents of the Intelligence Community’s 2020 Worldwide Threat Assessment are eventually released, they should build on the climate change trends mentioned in their 2019 assessment, buttressed by the WMO’s summaries.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis


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