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We Breached 1.5 Degrees Celsius of Warming — Sort Of

What today’s news from Copernicus does and doesn’t mean.

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Somewhat fittingly, Heatmap’s first year in existence coincided with the planet’s first 12-month period with an average temperature more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to a new report from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. This might not come as a surprise if you’ve been reading us for any amount of time. But still, the number is striking — it’s the target we’ve long heard about, the threshold that the Paris Agreement is trying to keep us under.

It might be easy, then, to look at this report with a bit of despair. I am here to tell you otherwise. Some things to keep in mind:

  • For starters, this report does not mean we’ve missed the Paris Agreement’s target; Copernicus’ report covers average temperatures over one year, while the Paris Agreement’s targets operate on 20- or 30-year timescales.

  • El Niño was also a factor. The warm ocean phenomenon tends to bring higher global temperatures, so it’s possible the average could dip back down in a La Niña year (which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says is probably on its way soon).

  • This threshold is not a point of no return. As I wrote in my very first piece for Heatmap, humanity operates on stunningly compressed time scales compared to the rest of our planet. It didn’t take us very long to reach this point; similarly, the speed of our efforts to decarbonize will affect the speed at which we will return to more livable temperatures.

If anything, think of today’s number news as a call to action. The last year was a preview of what life could be like above 1.5 degrees C; the next few years will likely also be incredibly hot compared to pre-industrial levels, and we must do our best to mitigate the pain and loss to come.

We’ll be covering those efforts at Heatmap, as we always do, but if you’d like an idea of the various paths available to us for decarbonization, this Carbon Brief interactive is a good place to start.

Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.


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