January 17, 2024

by Francesco Ramella
Surface and satellites measurements agree: 2023 has been the warmest year on record at 1.43°C above the preindustrial level and around 1°C since 1970.

The effects of El Niño, a climate phenomenon that warms the atmosphere and affects weather patterns around the globe, the eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano in the Pacific Ocean and the reduction of pollution from shipping vessels, superimposed to those of the anthropic greenhouse gases has led us, at least temporarily, very close to the 1.5 threshold many believe is the beginning of the end. In reality, a 1.6 warmer world is not much different from a 1.4 one: the Earth is not going to boil when the threshold is reached. Science only tells us that the negative effects of climate change are nonlinear and increase more than proportionally to the warming of the Earth.

Has 2023 really been an “annus horribilis” because of the climate? No, quite to the contrary. On average, it has probably been one of the best years ever.

We have never been so numerous on the Earth. And we have never created so much wealth: world GDP reached $105 trillion; in inflation-adjusted terms this is around 2.8 trillion more than in the previous year and about twice the value registered at the end of the twentieth century. In per capita terms growth in the same period has been about 50%.

The poverty rate has never been this low in human history: according to the World Bank, after the setback caused by Covid, the share of those living below $2.15 a day (2017 PPP-adjusted dollars) declined to 8.61%. It was 30% in the year 2000.

In December, the FAO’s estimates for the 2023 world production of cereals was raised to 2,823 million tonnes, 10.4 million tonnes above the previous record high reached in 2021.

In regard to extreme events, there’s has been a lot of news coverage about wildfires in Canada: in 2023, total acreage burnt has been five-times the average of the past twenty years. As usual, much less has been made known about below average cases such as the United States. In fact, world wildfires emissions (a proxy of the area burnt) have indeed been higher than in the previous years, but very much similar to those registered at the beginning of this century.

The total number of meteorological disasters1 in 2023 was 307 below the average (340 events) of the 2000-2022 period.

There have been twenty-one thousand victims with a death rate of 2.7 per million people. This is about twice the average of the decade 2011-20, but less than any yearly figure during the 1920-2010 period. More than half of the lives have been lost in a single event: the collapse of two dams near the city of Derna in Libya after days of torrential rain. Did climate change play a role in the catastrophe? We can’t say for sure, but we do know that the poor condition of the infrastructures had been repeatedly denounced, and a contractor hired in 2012 to fix the dams did nothing.

The thirteen most serious disasters claimed 17,800 victims in total. All such disasters took place in African and Asian poor countries. In Europe the worst event was a wildfire in Greece with 26 deaths.

By comparison, a series of El Niño events in the last third of the 19th century and subsequent droughts led to the death of around 50 million people, which is equivalent to a mortality rate of 40,000 per million people, that is more than ten thousand times greater than last year.

Economic losses from natural disasters (which also include earthquakes and other non-meteorological events) have been 269 billion dollars against 295 billion in 2022 and an average of 235 billion in the previous ten years. Put differently, the cost of natural disasters was around 0.25% of world GDP. This percentage is roughly the same as that registered in the last thirty years. Obviously, only a fraction of this figure is attributable to climate change.

The ”unintended effects” of the use of fossil fuels, an essential ingredient for economic growth till today, are on average quite small. However, they can wreak havoc in specific areas and will probably increase in the next years. That is why lowering emissions in an efficient way makes sense. Nevertheless, wealth and adaptation have been and will be the main factors affecting our well-being. For sure, there are more important things on Earth than average surface temperature.

1 A disaster fulfils at least one of the following criteria: a) ten fatalities; b) one hundred affected people; c) a declaration of emergency; d) a call for international assistance.