Thanks to El Niño, the world is about to experience something like time travel to the year 2050. It won’t be pleasant. But rather than devolve into panic at the grim climate future it portends, we should use it as a warning about the need to do more to slow global warming.
Climate scientists warned recently that the likely return of the El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific later this year could cause global temperatures to temporarily surge 1.5C above their preindustrial average in 2024. That margin represents a warming benchmark the whole planet has set as a barely tolerable maximum for many decades in the future, not for the next few years.
The repercussions could be grim. The strong El Niño of 2015-16 produced the highest average global temperature on record, in 2016, along with a horrific drought in Ethiopia, a powerful cyclone in Fiji, rain and snowfall records in parts of the U.S. and history’s worst coral reef die-off. For some reason, it didn’t cause flooding in California; but El Niño events typically strengthen atmospheric rivers of the sort that have been drowning that state for the past few weeks.
And the planet is warmer now than it was when that El Niño began, with average temperatures occasionally touching 1.2C above preindustrial levels. This despite nearly three years of the cooling La Niña weather pattern. These phenomena take months to influence the climate, but at some point after El Niño returns, a new temperature record is likely, bringing the 1.5C threshold uncomfortably close.
Some scientists warn it’s already too late to limit global warming to 1.5C. Topping that target even briefly long before, say, 2050, could lead to widespread acceptance that the planet is doomed to far higher temperatures in the long run.
Such hopelessness could be dangerous. It would also be mistaken. One or two years of high temperatures do not a long-term trend make, says climate scientist Michael Mann. It may be politically difficult to take the steps necessary to avoid 1.5C becoming the long-term trend, but it is still technically possible.
We must do everything we can, for as long as we can, to avoid sustained warming of 1.5C or more. A brief spike in 2024, as miserable as it will be, would be a mild foretaste of what the planet faces if such temperatures become normal. El Niño’s regional impacts are altogether different from those that will prevail due to long-term global warming. The devastation of decades of ice melt, sea-level rise, ecosystem collapse and other climate-change effects will be magnitudes more harrowing.
Any El Niño warming spike should be seen as an opportunity to remind the world of the need to mitigate climate change much more quickly than we have been doing. A short-term emergency can help focus minds and dollars on curbing carbon emissions, transitioning to green energy and researching technologies to fight the long-term emergency.
And long before El Niño arrives, we must prepare for the extreme weather it will ultimately bring. Governments around the world should get busy making water supplies more resilient, protecting vulnerable people from deadly heat waves and storms while greening and strengthening electrical grids, to name a few tasks.
We have maybe a year to get ready. Foresight hasn’t exactly been humanity’s strong suit when it comes to climate, but it’s not too late to give it a try.
Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change. A former managing editor of Fortune.com, he ran the HuffPost’s business and technology coverage and was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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